During our discussion on “In the Waiting Room” in class this morning, we touched upon the idea of the “other” in Bishop’s poem, specifically focusing on the name of her fictitious aunt, Consuelo. I would like to look at a different way Bishop introduces the presence of the “other” in the first stanza of the poem. Bishop uses color as an identifier of something or someone that is strange, unknown or different than what the young narrator is used to.
The first use of color in the poem is on the penultimate line on page 3, where she is describing the first image in the National Geographic. The narrator uses the word “black” as her first description of what is the inside of a volcano. There is no indication in the poem of the narrator’s race, but the fact that black is associated with an exotic topographical phenomenon such as a volcano indicates that the black is a symbol for the other. Living in Massachusetts, she has probably never seen a volcano, often associated with tropical islands or dangerous lands to be explored. This strengthens the tie between the color black and the “other” according to young Elizabeth.
The color black is mentioned a second time in the first stanza, but this time in direct reference to the skin tone of people. On the ninth line on page 4 we read, “black, naked women with necks…” This line has a similar structure to the line we previously examined, the color being separated by a comma. This time we can see the racial undertone of the color more clearly as it is used to describe “other” human beings. The fact that black is isolated by the comma and is the first word of the description again indicates the primacy and importance of that trait to the narrator. The first thing she is noticing about the women pictured in the magazine is their difference, the fact that they are black.
The final color reference in the first stanza provides a different variation on using color to distinguish the “other.” The last line of the stanza reads, “the yellow margins, the date.” The narrator is referring to the recognizable cover of the National Geographic magazine. While this yellow is not strange or out of the norm for her since it is associated with this publication, the magazine itself represents the new and different. We also began to mention that the publication could be read as gendered male, using the color yellow to signal difference and “otherness.”
In conclusion, Bishop uses color as a distinctive signifier of the “other” for her young narrator. This allows for the reader to understand that when something is new to the narrator in these visual capacities, such as what colors she’s using to describe what she sees, she has probably never experienced it before either.