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American Imago 61.4 (2004) 495-518

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The Weirdest Scale on Earth:

Elizabeth Bishop and Containment

At the heart of "In the Waiting Room"—the first poem in Elizabeth Bishop's last book—lies the recollection of a terrifying childhood experience:

the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.

This experience has been characterized by many readers, following Helen Vendler, as "vertigo" (1977, 37), and though Vendler herself construes vertigo as "metaphysical doubt," I would like to take a harder look at what is at stake in this childhood memory, which inaugurates a volume whose last line concedes the persistence of beginnings: "(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift)" (181). What other sense can we make of this early "falling off"?

One way to pursue this question is to consider the passage as a stark instance of one of Bishop's crucial tropes: the destabilizing threat of what, in the poem following "In the Waiting Room," Bishop's Crusoe calls "weird scale" (164). Highlighting the way that "throughout her work Bishop loves juggling relative sizes," James Merrill points out that in "Crusoe in England" "Crusoe's flute appropriately plays 'the weirdest scale on earth'" (1989, 256). Merrill's formulation, however, seems to me a little too cheerful, by contrast with the darker sense informing Vendler's observation that "Bishop's poems . . . put into relief the continuing vibration between two frequencies—the domestic and the strange" (1977, 32). But of the important early readings, perhaps David Kalstone's most clearly evokes the threat posed by such "juggling" and "continuing vibration": the "odd, habitual changes of scale" (1977, 13) in Bishop's [End Page 495] poems, Kalstone asserts, reflect "an effort at reconstituting the world as if it were in danger of being continually lost" (12).

Focusing on this trope of instability in "In the Waiting Room" and some related work, I would like to explore the threat that impels Bishop's weird scale. We can call this the threat of "loss" that many critics have come to recognize as central to Bishop's writing.2 In trying to enrich our sense of how her work explores what "loss" means, I shall have recourse to a psychoanalytic perspective, albeit one that cuts against the Lacanian grain of many previous readings of Bishop, drawing instead on the object-relational formulations of D. W. Winnicott and W. R. Bion.3

This tradition envisions the role of language very differently from that ascribed to it by Lacan. As Jane Flax maintains in her lucid contrast of Lacan and Winnicott, since for Lacan language "is not self-created, it must be alien and alienating. Language and its laws are seen as imposed on the subject from the 'outside'—by a culture that is 'alien'" (1990, 96-97). For Winnicott, in contrast, culture, including language, can occupy a "potential space" between inner and outer worlds that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective; given a "good-enough" presentation of the external world, the individual "can creatively transform what is given in part by bringing something of inner reality to the process" (Flax 1990, 119).

Barbara Schapiro points out that "much of the current clinical research . . . would seem to belie Lacan's view of the primacy of language in the construction of subjectivity" (1994, 22). She marshals many recent theorists who share Daniel Stern's view that "the word is given to the infant from the outside, by the mother, but there exists a thought for it to be given to. . . . It occupies a midway position between the infant's subjectivity and the mother's objectivity [and thus] is a union experience" (qtd. in Schapiro 1994, 23).4 Christopher Bollas, as Peter Rudnytsky summarizes him, "subsumes a theory of language, the alpha and omega for Lacanians, within an object relational framework, which recognizes that nonverbal affects precede linguistic representations" (1993, xvi-xvii). For Lacan, all human beings come to language in the same way, as something fixed and non-negotiable; for Winnicott and his colleagues, our encounter with...


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