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Zimmerman, L. (2004). The Weirdest Scale on Earth: Elizabeth Bishop and Containment. Am. Imago, 61(4):495-518.

(2004). American Imago, 61(4):495-518

The Weirdest Scale on Earth: Elizabeth Bishop and Containment

Lee Zimmerman

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. (160)1

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).

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