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Elizabeth Bishop and the Schizoaffectivity of Whiteness

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), Toni Morrison calls for “studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness. . . . Such studies,” she continues, “will reveal the process of establishing others in order to know them, to display knowledge of the other so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos.”[1] In demonstrating the reflexive role that Africanist personae play in white American literature—the manner by which white people construct blackness as a screen for the projections that enable, through simultaneous disavowal and enforcement, their identifications as white—“Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one’s own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other” (Morrison, Playing, 53). In other words, the legacy of white American literature is such that the presence of a Black character often tells us exclusively about whiteness, rather than about blackness: knowledge of Black people or of blackness in general serves less as a contrast to the whiteness of the author or of their white characters than as what Morrison terms their “shadow,” an obscuration of the accumulation of contradictory affects—desire and revulsion, identification and antipathy, pity and fear—that grounds and enables whiteness in its literary (and, as we will see, psychic) manifestation. The presence of Black characters, or in Morrison’s language, Africanist personae, thus represents a need in the imagination of the white writer for a textual strategy that will allow the exploration of white identity without having to identify with its internal contradictions and both historical and present violence. The white writer accomplishes this evasion by projecting the psychic material of whiteness onto their representation of a phantasmatic Black body, overdetermining it.

This study of Elizabeth Bishop attempts to answer Morrison’s call in Playing in the Dark. Alongside several letters spaced throughout her career, I here read three poems of Bishop’s for their representations of both race and desire, situating desire (and particularly sexuality) in Bishop’s writing as the point of most urgent identificatory instability wherein the sense of a white self is most obviously a projection onto a racialized Other. Across these poems, sexuality constitutes, in Morrison’s language, a situation of “external and internal chaos,” a situation which simultaneously demands the penetration of one’s own body to know it and the disguise of that intimate self-exploration as penetrative knowledge of the racial Other. The first two poems in this essay, “Cootchie” and “Songs for a Colored Singer,” come from the end of Bishop’s first collection, North & South (1946). The third, “In the Waiting Room,” is the first poem in her final collection, Geography III (1976). The arc of my reading neither seeks to charge Bishop with racial animus nor to exonerate her from charges of racial insensitivity. Rather, what I seek to do is to reveal a long movement in Bishop’s thought from the notion of race as merely a marker of otherness to a recognition that whiteness is also a race, that she also occupies a racialized subject position. Such a movement seems like a rather small one on the page, visible only in minor rhetorical and perspectival shifts from poem to poem. My contention, however, is that the identificatory and affective mechanisms that these minor shifts disclose are operative on the deepest levels of self-fashioning, not only for Bishop, but for many white people (myself included) whose politics and lives skew progressive and cosmopolitan according to the standards of their times. More simply, fantasies of desire, broadly construed, offer themselves to many white people as sites wherein repressed racisms of various kinds may manifest.

Bishop’s movement toward the awareness of race as a deeply personal reality—not merely as a political or sociological one—follows, with remarkable accuracy, the itinerary of preoedipal object relations theory, specifically Melanie Klein’s, which was important and interesting to Bishop and has been of special import for critics of race, sexuality, and gender in the twenty-first century. Hence, this paper’s frame is fundamentally Kleinian throughout, especially in my reading of “In the Waiting Room.” Klein and her successors inform my work, and much of this essay’s understanding of the potentialities of psychoanalysis for queer and literary studies emerges, for instance, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s and José Esteban Muñoz’s readings of the depressive position. Bishop’s poetry has important things to say to object relations theory, things that perhaps unwittingly reveal the phantastic aporia and affective quagmire that our own whiteness is for white people.

Terming whiteness a “phantastic aporia” for the white person gestures toward a broad interdisciplinary consensus—from clinical psychology, to science and humanities pedagogy, to literary and cultural studies—that emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in response to Peggy McIntosh’s juggernaut 1989 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”[2] That consensus holds, in part, that a primary function of the identification as white is to invisibilize that identificatory drama for the white person, positing the condition of “being white” as “being natural” or un-raced. Recent work by Hiram Pérez in the tradition of queer of color critique has further shown the ways in which, in the American context since the nineteenth century, white male homosexuality operates through an elaborate fetishization of Black and brown male bodies. This fetishization simultaneously secures the identification of the white male homosexual with his own whiteness and obfuscates that identification by focalizing it through a fetishistic attachment to the body of the non-white male. In other words, through his experience of sexual desire for a non-white body, the white male homosexual “becomes” both white and homosexual, though he will likely never realize the enabling role the fetish object plays in his identifications.

Here, I seek to make a similar observation about race, fetishization, cathexis, and desire, but my context is that of white female homosexuality, and the psychoanalytic terms of my argument differ from Pérez’s because I seek not to describe an irresolvable identificatory problem, as he does, but to point to an opportunity for individual and cultural analytic intervention. While, for Pérez, the body of color disrupts the Freudian family romance for the white child, I argue that whiteness constitutes a set of object-relational libidinal attachments productive of Klein’s paranoid position.[3] Moreover, I argue that Bishop’s belated recognition of these psychic phenomena in the poem, “In the Waiting Room,” when read alongside her earlier depictions of race, represents the analytic conversion from the paranoid to the depressive positions. Klein’s and Joan Riviere’s theories on the value of guilt help elucidate how this late poem notices and responds to the insufficiency of Bishop’s earlier attempts to describe race as a social, political, and historical problem beyond and not including herself. While the emergence of racial awareness in Bishop’s late poetry may not necessarily be a reparation of her earlier literature, it is a reparative gesture, an attempt to think critically and capaciously about the violence that structures her lifelong experience of desire from the vantage point of her life’s end.

i. The Color Line Between Subjects and Objects

In May of 1938, Bishop writes to Marianne Moore from Key West, primarily to thank her for her feedback on the story “In Prison,” which Bishop has just published in the Partisan Review. She also mentions that Ted Wilson has loaned her a copy of In the American Grain, published by William Carlos Williams thirteen years earlier. The book is a sprawling, fantastically, and ironically imagined picture of the Americas, with thirty-four chapters that range from “Red Eric,” “Christopher Columbus,” and “Cortez and Montezuma” to “Edgar Allan Poe” and “Abraham Lincoln.” What Bishop narrows in on, however, is the fourth-to-last chapter, which comprises only four pages in the contemporary New Directions edition. She says only of the book that “I was rather disappointed in it, but I did think some of the remarks about Negroes were very good, and mean so much more than any of the novels, etc., I’ve read about them.”[4] She then follows this up with a strange thought: “I want very much to attempt something about them myself—those I have anything to do with here are all so good. Their cheerfulness is amazing—as Cootchie, the maid here, said to me the other morning, ‘That why I like colored folks—they never commit suicide’” (One Art, emphasis in original, 74).[5] While Cootchie’s comment is amusing, it is not the focus of Bishop’s letter, and she does not offer any context for it. Whatever prompted this moment of grim humor has already dropped away, leaving only the comment, which has become part of the verbal information out of which Bishop might compose (as Cootchie … said). The comment has, in other words, already become potentially aesthetic in Bishop’s mind. In a similar way, Bishop’s aspiration is not to write something about her own experience of knowing Cootchie or any other Black person in Key West. She wishes to write about Black people as a category, to capture some racial essence in aesthetic terms.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a very similar ethos guides the chapter of In the American Grain that Bishop admires, which is titled “Advent of the Slaves.” Williams’s understanding of the role of African Americans in American history and culture reflects the de facto segregation in which he lived. He protests against the inclusion of African Americans in any performance or production staging art of European origin or making serious art about their own experiences and conditions. He writes: “All the rest is to keep from having to say anything more—like a n[—]: it is their beauty. When they try to make their race an issue—it is nothing. In a chorus singing Trovatore, they are nothing. But saying nothing, dancing nothing, ‘NOBODY’, it is a quality—.”[6] Williams gestures repeatedly throughout the chapter to this racial “quality” that he cannot quite name but which he equates to a quotidian species of decidedly unserious aesthetic delight he takes in the mannerisms of the Black people he encounters. Moreover, his disavowal of the “issue” of race is fundamental to his picture of American history: he begins the chapter by claiming that “There is little use, after all—save in a title—of speaking of the advent of the slaves; these were just men of a certain mettle who came to America in ships, like the rest” (American Grain, 208). In Williams’s “American grain,” African Americans do not have a culture informed by a history and constrained by economic, political, and social conditions. They have, instead, a quality, the telos of which is to provide good cheer and nonce aesthetic pleasure to serious, white life.

In her brief mention of Cootchie’s cheer in 1938, Bishop certainly seems to have Williams’s ideas front of mind. Two years later, however, when she does sit down to write a poem about a Black person, she seems to have abandoned good cheer for a more melancholy and sentimental investment in the aesthetic pleasure of blackness. She sends the poem “Cootchie” to Marianne Moore in February of 1940, informing her also that Cootchie has died.[7]

The poem situates Cootchie as the focal point of two interpolated scenes which unfold across two stanzas of nine lines each. We find out in the first three lines that “Cootchie, Miss Lula’s servant, lies in the marl / black into white she went / below the surface of the coral reef.”[8] Bishop devotes the next four lines to a description of Miss Lula and Cootchie eating in the kitchen, since “Her life was spent / in caring for Miss Lula, who is deaf” (Complete Poems, 46). The most direct characterization Cootchie receives in the poem is when, in this small scene, Bishop characterizes her and Lula as contrasting properties in the mise-en-scène of the kitchen: Cootchie “eating her dinner off the kitchen sink / while Lula ate hers off the kitchen table” (46). As quickly as it began, the interpolated scene ends, and we return to the site of Cootchie’s burial. The first stanza concludes with the observation that “The skies were egg-white for the funeral / and the faces sable” (46).

The second stanza is made up of one five-line question and its four-line answer. Bishop opens the stanza by imagining how “Tonight the moonlight will alleviate / the melting of the pink wax roses / planted in tin cans filled with sand / placed in a line to mark Miss Lula’s losses” (46). Then, she interrupts herself with a question: “but who will shout and make her understand?” (46). The question is rhetorical because Miss Lula is deaf, but Bishop answers it anyway, with two somber images. By nightfall, nobody remains to force Miss Lula’s understanding: “the lighthouse will discover Cootchie’s grave / and dismiss all as trivial; the sea, desperate, / will proffer wave after wave” (46).

In neither scene does Bishop describe Cootchie as a personality. Cootchie is, instead, a figure that indexes a set of thematic issues which Bishop wishes to explore. That is, the poem is not really about Cootchie; it is about various arrangements of the colors black and white. The poem opens with a double color contrast: first, the social color contrast of Cootchie and Miss Lula, and second, the physical color contrast between Cootchie’s skin and the coral reef. Immediately, then, the poem recognizes a tension between the physical attribute of skin color and its social meaning. The shift in scene from the funeral to Miss Lula’s kitchen in the first stanza locates Cootchie and Miss Lula both in space and in history: their arrangement in the kitchen—the white woman eating at the table and the Black woman eating at the sink—immediately conjures up a whole history of racialized domestic labor that contours the relations between white and Black women in America.

The immediate shift back to the scene of the funeral, however, suspends the issue of American history and its figuration of modern American race relations. As with the dueling contrasts in the poem’s opening lines, the first stanza ends by refocalizing the issue of race as a natural phenomenon: the Black faces at the funeral stand out against the whiteness of the sky. The relationship between physical color contrast and the social meaning of skin color is paratactic. Their occurrence beside one another, in being unmediated, refuses to explicate the political ramifications of the color line as Bishop draws it.

The shift from the first to the second stanza is a shift in temporality. From the preterite of the speaker’s observation, we shift to the future tense of the speaker’s imagination. The stanza is perhaps best understood as three personifications: of the moon, which alleviates the melting of the wax roses; of the lighthouse, which finds and then dismisses Cootchie’s grave; and of the sea, which desperately throws waves upon the reef. Importantly, all of these actions are purposeless; each action is the result of the nature of the object which performs it. The moon cannot help being cold, nor can the lighthouse help moving its gaze continuously and without focus, nor can the sea resist proffering its waves. Nevertheless, the personifications work to suggest that each of these actions happens, to some extent, in response to Miss Lula’s sense of ownership over Cootchie’s body—concretized in the row of wax roses that mark the graves of Miss Lula’s previous servants—and the misunderstanding which that sense of ownership reflects, according to the speaker’s ardent rhetorical question. The animation of the landscape underscores the unanswerability of the question, the abjection and lack of agency which Bishop’s speaker finds in Cootchie’s life and death. No amount of metaphorization, the poem concludes, will supply the meaning of which the funeral leaves the speaker desirous.

The presence of the natural world in this poem thus serves an implicit rhetorical purpose. It anchors the poem’s hierarchical account of race to a natural state of affairs, a physical contrast. The personified scenography that impassively absorbs Cootchie’s body does not endorse or affirm this state of affairs as right or good, but neither does it challenge racial hierarchy. Just as the mechanical operations of the moon, lighthouse, and sea become deceptively meaningful through personification, so Bishop represents race as an essential characteristic which becomes deceptively meaningful through social performance. The political potential of this poem finally breaks down, however, because the poem only recognizes two interiorities: that of Miss Lula, who misunderstands, and of the speaker, who demands someone else make her understand. Both Cootchie and her mourners are figures for a contest between the retrograde beliefs of one white subject and the progressive feelings of another. Just like the landscape, the Black people in this poem are objects of indeterminate animacy that mediate and enable the negotiation of two interpretations of whiteness.

Ultimately, then, Williams, Miss Lula, and Bishop’s speaker share something in common: Black people serve them in some way. For Williams, the service is to provide pleasure. For Miss Lula, the service is to provide ease. For Bishop’s speaker, more complicatedly and more politely, the service is to provide an imaginative space in which the explication of white feelings (under the guise of the explication of race relations) is made possible.

That Bishop can perform this objectification even while disavowing Miss Lula’s objectification of Cootchie as one of “her losses” is owing to something else that Bishop shares with Williams: a sense of herself as an unracialized writer, as just a writer, rather than as a white writer. Both Bishop’s and Williams’s pictures of social relations include themselves in a unitary, not double, sense: they conceive of themselves as merely persons. The socio-psychological burden of blackness, according to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, is to see oneself always from one’s own perspective and the phantasmatic perspective of a potential white onlooker, to never fail to signify in one’s own consciousness as both a subject and as a racialized subject.[9]  The perception of oneself as just a person—the invisibility of white as an essential (read: necessary) descriptor of persons within whiteness’s own rhetorical frame—renders the supposedly essential (read: natural) characteristic of blackness hypervisible. In “Cootchie,” blackness becomes so visible, in fact, that it obscures everything else about the Black people in the poem.

ii. Apostrophe, Persona, Minstrelsy

Bishop is not done thinking about race in 1940, however. While living in Greenwich Village after leaving Vassar, Bishop becomes acquainted with Billie Holiday through Louise Crane (One Art, xi). It is partially on the basis of this acquaintance that she composes the four cantos she will publish as “Songs for a Colored Singer” in The Partisan Review in 1944.[10] The poem will then appear immediately following “Cootchie” in North & South when Houghton Mifflin publishes the collection in 1946. In a 1967 letter to U. T. and Joseph Summers, she writes that “The ‘Songs’ were for Billie Holiday, but very vaguely, and I left New York before I ever attempted to find music for them” (One Art, 478, emphasis in original). “Songs” sticks out in North & South for its intense focus upon the aural rather than the visual—a focus toward which the tight rhyme scheme of “Cootchie” seems to gesture in an inchoate manner. Bishop was a lifelong fan of African American music and a collector of jazz and blues records with an emphasis on female singers. She writes to May Swenson in 1959, “I haven’t had time yet to play Odetta all through, but she certainly has an extremely beautiful voice. Of course I like Negro voices anyway—have most of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, etc. (as you may remember)” (378).

“Songs” is a bifurcated text. Its first two cantos tell the first-person story of an African American woman in a dead-end relationship with an alcoholic named Le Roy. Its third and fourth cantos drop the persona though not the conceit of speakers with “Negro voices.” The third canto is a lullaby for a Black mother and child. The fourth is a response to Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which Holiday based on an anti-lynching poem by Lewis Allen (Abel Meeropol) and wrote and recorded with Allen, Sonny White, and Danny Mendelsohn in 1939 as a memorialization of her father, who died in 1937 from the combination of pneumonia and medical neglect in Dallas, Texas. According to Holiday in her 1956 autobiography, the song “has a way of separating the straight people from the squares and cripples. One night in Los Angeles,” she remembers, “a bitch stood right up in the club where I was singing and said, ‘Billie, why don’t you sing that sexy song you’re so famous for? You know, the one about the naked bodies swinging in the trees?’ Needless to say, I didn’t.”[11] Bishop certainly falls in the category of “the straight people” here, sensitive to and invested in the song’s horror at the violence of lynching. However, the fourth canto’s rewrite of “Strange Fruit,” which replaces the fruit with seeds that grow into faces “Like an army in a dream,” confounds a bit, placed as it is at the end of “Songs for a Colored Singer,” which as a whole seems to have a very different set of stakes than “Strange Fruit.”

As a reception of Holiday, “Songs” is well plotted. The fourth canto is not the only one that alludes to Holiday’s career. With their frank and unapologetic narrative of a relationship gone wrong, the first two cantos reflect many of Holiday’s hits of the late thirties, and the lullaby of canto three seems to gesture toward the 1941 hit, “God Bless the Child.” Any of Bishop’s songs might plausibly be part of Holiday’s repertoire. But they never become songs in Holiday’s, or anyone else’s, oeuvre. Rather than filing them away, Bishop publishes them as the four cantos of a poem that identifies them as for a Black speaker though not, necessarily, of a Black speaker. The slippage between “for” and “of” is important because it means that the title holds two identities in suspension: she who would speak (for whom the songs are) and she who does (of whom the songs are).

While there is no literal apostrophe in “Songs,” the action of the preposition “for” in the title is apostrophic in the sense of Barbara Johnson and Lauren Berlant. Following Johnson’s theory of apostrophe, Berlant writes:

The [apostrophic] moment is made possible by the fantasy of you, laden with the x qualities I can project onto you, given your convenient absence. Apostrophe therefore appears to be a reaching out to a you, a direct movement from place x to y, but it is actually a turning back, an animating of a receiver on behalf of the desire to make something happen now that realizes something in the speaker, makes the speaker possible, because she has admitted, in a sense, a need to speak for, as, and to two: but only under the condition, and illusion, that the two is really (in) one.[12]

According to Berlant, the rhetorical content of apostrophe is a negated disclosure of the self’s contingencies. In apostrophe, a speaker implicitly admits that her speech, and so existence, are contingent upon an illusory doubleness: the fantasy that she is at once the author of herself as well as of that toward which she reaches. She speaks “for, as, and to two” in order to realize something in herself, a realization that is constitutive of herself as this voice which here speaks. What she “desire[s] to make happen” is the eruption and efficacy of her own speech on the qualities of this or that apostrophized object, which will always be, in a roundabout way, the content of her identity as the present speaker.

If it is true that the preposition in the title of these four cantos performs “an animating of a receiver on behalf of the desire to make something happen, now that realizes something in the speaker, makes the speaker possible,” then what Bishop writes for the voice of the “Colored Singer”—who is “Billie Holiday, but very vaguely”—has a great deal to do with the question of who Elizabeth Bishop is, or at the very least who her speaker is. It is clear at the outset that the first two cantos of the poem, which relate the first-person narrative of an African American woman leaving her alcoholic partner, are a species of minstrel performance. Donning what Bishop perceives to be the audial qualities of an African American woman’s voice, her persona-speaker laments her situation in the first canto: “What have we got for all his dollars and cents? / —A pile of bottles by the fence” (Complete Poems, 47). Le Roy refuses to change: “‘Darling, what I earns I spends. / The world is wide; it still extends. . . .” (47). The refrain, repeated twice throughout the canto, is “Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now” (47).

The second canto narrates the dissolution of the speaker’s relationship with Le Roy. Declaring at the top of the canto that “The time has come to call a halt; / and so it ends,” the speaker decides to set out on her own: “I’m leaving on the bus tonight. / Far down the highway wet and black / I’ll ride and ride and not come back” (48). The canto narrates the feelings of the speaker on the cusp of her departure, primarily her ambivalence toward Le Roy, whom she loves but whose behavior she cannot condone. The fondness that warms lines like “I met him walking with Varella / and hit him twice with my umbrella” butts up against the firmness of the canto’s refrain, “The time has come to call a halt” (48). Because the canto does not narrate the departure itself, the reader and the speaker remain in the sway of unresolved and conflicting affects.[13] Having made the decision to emancipate herself, but having yet to carry it out, the subjectivity that Bishop posits in the canto experiences the potentiality of her emancipation but not its actualization, which is not unlike Le Roy’s leave-it-to-tomorrow attitude toward the abject material conditions of his and the speaker’s lives together: “‘I’m going to get a job in the next town,’” he declares in the first canto (47).

The persona drops out of the next two cantos, which would seem to absolve these of the charge of minstrelsy. Together, they constitute something like the statement of a problem and its solution. The lullaby of canto three describes a mother and child in a moment of peaceful sleep together but haunted by the images of chattel slavery: “At sea the big ship sinks and dies” and “The shadow of the crib makes an enormous cage / upon the wall” (49). The singer of the lullaby is hopeful though: “Sleep on and on / war’s over soon. / Drop the silly, harmless toy, / pick up the moon” (49). Picking up the moon is a surreal image of agency, an ability which would, it seems, confirm the mother and child’s belated freedom from the ever-present ghost of the past. The problem of the third canto is, then, what to do with this dream of agency.

The fourth canto picks up where the third canto leaves off. Ostensibly looking upon the lynching tree of “Strange Fruit,” Bishop’s speaker notices something “shining in the leaves / . . . / like tears when somebody grieves” (50). This “dew or tears” slides down the tree and falls upon the ground (50). Bishop’s speaker commands that we hear it; “That is not a tearful sound,” Bishop writes, “beating, beating on the ground” (50). As in the second canto, Bishop prefers an affect here to a feeling: in the beating, there is a sense of urgency, a sense of emotional overwhelm, a sense of action, but no resolved statement of what the hearer of the beating feels. The glistening moisture from the tree gives rise to a “conspiring root,” which produces, in place of fruits or flowers, faces (50). The canto, and so the “Songs,” conclude:

Like an army in a dream

the faces seem,

darker, darker, like a dream.

They’re too real to be a dream. (51)

The easy reading here is that the answer to the problem of canto three—what to do with the moon one picks up—is awake to the reality that Black folks exist in great numbers and may fight for the recognition of their human rights and dignity. The work of the similes in this final stanza is to position the Black faces in an indeterminacy between the surreal and the real, the dreaming and the waking—an indeterminacy that breaks in the recognition of the final line. Here is where the apostrophe finally reveals itself as the “animation of a receiver” in order to enable a speaker. Neither Billie Holiday nor any other Black singer needs to awake to the reality of her own face: its blackness does not make it “darker, darker, like a dream” but is a mark of its reality as hers. It is Bishop who must remember that these faces are real rather than surreal. The four cantos thus move toward Bishop’s potential awakening to the fact that it is she who speaks.

However, the speaker never realizes this potential awakening because, like the affects in the poem, the indeterminacy of the surreal and the real never finally resolves. The faces are “too real to be a dream,” but not so real as to risk a positive statement of what they therefore are. This indeterminacy echoes the indeterminacies of the other three cantos. The speaker of the first two cantos cannot resolve her affects into feeling and action. The speaker of the third canto cannot resolve the imagistic discordance of the peaceful mother and child against the specter of slavery. The speaker of the fourth canto cannot resolve her dreams of blackness into a conceptualization of the waking reality of Black persons. Each of these failed resolutions dramatizes the greater irresolution of “Songs for a Colored Singer”: the failure to resolve what it means and feels like to be white, routing the experience of race through the performance of blackness instead. The minstrelsy of “Songs,” its apostrophic ventriloquization of “Negro voices,” performs the identificatory drama of being white but refusing to acknowledge whiteness as a determinate social position with its own affordances and limitations. Rather than attempt the position of invisible witness that emerges from a belief in one’s own descriptive prerogative, as in “Coochie,” the poem attempts to bridge the space between one subject position and its phantasy of another. That it finally cannot do this is why the “Songs” are ultimately “for,” not of “a Colored Singer.” The “Songs” encode an emergent recognition that a desire to know and experience the affordances of blackness is always impossible if one is not-Black. What escapes the speaker of “Songs” is that not-Black is not an accurate description of one’s subjective situatedness, that more particularity about oneself is necessary to ask questions as intimate and fraught as those that “Songs” asks. In other words, the speaker still refuses to acknowledge the identificatory and affective attachments to the rhetorical privileges of whiteness that allow “Songs” to read to its original audience, as well as to many audiences today, as experimental, sentimental, and respectful.[14]

iii. Advent of the Fetish

“In the Waiting Room,” published in Geography III in 1976, represents a very different orientation toward race than the poems that precede it, of which “Cootchie” and “Songs for a Colored Singer” are emblematic. “In the Waiting Room,” one of Bishop’s best-known poems, is the story of a six-almost-seven-year-old Bishop accompanying her Aunt Consuelo to a dentist appointment.[15] Elizabeth sits “In the Waiting Room.” While there, she notices a copy of National Geographic:

and while I waited I read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

the inside of a volcano,

black, and full of ashes;

then it was spilling over

in rivulets of fire.

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

— “Long Pig,” the caption said.

Babies with pointed heads

wound round and round with string;

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying. (Complete Poems, 159)

The first thing to note about this passage is that it is a historical fiction. Later in the poem, Bishop names this National Geographic as that of February 1918. As Lee Edelman and others have pointed out, the article about volcanos is real, but the article about cannibals is imaginary. Edelman notes that Bishop further mischaracterizes the article in an interview with George Starbuck in spring 1977 for Ploughshares, falsely claiming “the African things, it turned out, were in the next issue, in March.”[16] Though Bishop’s description in the poem bears passing resemblance to an October 1919 article by E. Torday, titled “Curious and Characteristic Customs of Central African Tribes,” it remains a point of speculation whether Bishop actually had any referent for the details she includes in the poem, especially since certain details—like the strings around the heads of the babies—do not appear in Torday’s photographs. I have included one of Torday’s photographs here, however, to emphasize Bishop’s bizarre approach to her potential source material; the breasts of these women hardly seem to be the focus of the photographs of them (fig. 1). The deception or confusion about the article points, for Edelman, to a desire to establish the poem’s literality. For me, that desire for literality points to an obscure need, difficult or impossible for Bishop to articulate or confess, to justify the article’s necessariness to the mise-en-scène of “In the Waiting Room.” Within the poem, the invented article serves to link, by proximal association, the black interior of the volcano with the Black bodies of the cannibals.[17] In both, blackness serves as an inscrutability that masks the capacity for magnificent violence, a violence which is desired as a kind of catharsis to cut through the suspensions by which Bishop constructs the mood of the scene. We get a taste of that cathartic violence when the black interior of the volcano starts “spilling over / in rivulets of fire,” but it remains held in suspension as regards the Black bodies in the magazine.

Fig. 1. E. Torday, “Curious and Characteristic Customs of Central African Tribes,” The National Geographic Magazine 34, no. 4 (1919): 351. This may or may not be a reference photo for Bishop’s description of breasts in “In the Waiting Room.” Of note in this photograph is the tension between the subjects, who gaze proudly and suspiciously at the camera, and the ethnographic voyeurism of Torday’s framing.

Bishop achieves the suspension of affective discharge that attaches to the Black bodies through a scenography of contrast. She sets the image of Osa and Martin Johnson in the attire of colonial explorers against that of the dead man on the pole. The caption’s defamiliarization of the man as “Long Pig” produces shock and extreme reluctance to approach the image—all of which results in an urgent desire to find something, anything, else with which to identify. But there is nothing familiar: next are the babies with their pointed heads wrapped in wire and then the women with their necks wrapped in wire. The simile that metaphorizes the necks of the women as light bulbs only serves to further the suspensions by which the scene operates, for this metaphorical linkage brings that which is immanently foreign to the speaker into the space of the near-to-hand, simultaneously defamiliarizing that which should be so easy to name and know. The suspensions at work here preempt both the projective and introjective capacities by which the speaker might be able to assimilate herself to these objects, to identify herself in their context. In short, these contrapuntal associations suspend the speaker, and so the reader with her, in a field of objects with which no relations are made possible, resulting in the severing of all possibly stable relations to the self.

The foregoing account of the poem’s first half-stanza relies upon a Kleinian understanding of identification. Bishop’s choice to write about a scene from her very early life from the standpoint of her very late life undoubtedly enables much of the psychoanalytic richness of this poem. Moreover, Bishop maintained a lifelong interest in psychoanalysis, including in Klein.[18] In her groundbreaking essay, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” Klein argues that three kinds of identification are possible. At the outset of the identificatory drama, the object—for the infant, the mother’s breast—is split into the good object, which pleases, and the bad object, which upsets. The first form of identification, introjection of the good object, is the operation by which the purely gratifying object becomes identified with those elements of oneself that bring one pleasure. This process forms the basis by which one learns both to love oneself and others. Importantly, therefore, the love that one feels for oneself comes initially from the pleasure one takes in the world beyond oneself; it is a movement from the outside in, an introjection. The second, projective identification, is a form of defensive, schizoid self-annihilation, in which hated aspects of the self are split off and projected onto objects, which then become hated objects. This aggressive relation to objects is self-perpetuating, producing a paranoid state by virtue of the fact that the objects which populate one’s psychic life represent, in a manner hidden from the patient’s view, the destructive tendencies which one harbors toward oneself. As such, life becomes paranoid, or schizoid, in that one feels the whole world is out to annihilate one, when, in reality, what has happened is that one’s self-annihilation has become the manner by which one relates to the world. Thus, one learns to hate the world first by hating oneself; hatred is a projection. The “paranoid position” that results from projective identification is a natural part of development and, for Klein, the mentally healthy subject progresses from the “paranoid position” to the “depressive position,” wherein the antipathies toward the self and the objects selected for projective identification are resolved through guilt, the operation of one’s love working against one’s hatred. This resolution allows for the integration of the loved object with the hated object and, thus, the third form of identification, which is the introjection of the whole object, resulting in the resolution of the loved self with the hated self and of the whole self with the world beyond it.[19] In the case of Bishop’s poem, however, in which the objects refuse relation, neither the paranoid nor the further depressive positions are reachable; there is no available identification. The preemption of the whole identificatory drama leaves the young Elizabeth groundless. Bishop seems to confirm this at the top of the second stanza, writing, “I said to myself: three days / and you’ll be seven years old. / I was saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world / into cold, blue-black space” (Complete Poems, 160, emphasis added).

In this moment of psychic groundlessness, the six-almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth notices the Black women’s breasts. “Their breasts were horrifying,” she writes. The moment in which she notices the breasts seems to shift totally the strategies of the poem’s first stanza. Here, finally, is an object without obvious counterpoint or, in the uncanny doubleness of breasts, as its own counterpoint. Unlike the ashes and the rivulets of fire, the Johnsons and the Long Pig, the wire on the bodies and the wire on the light bulbs—there is only the breasts and their unmitigated, unsuspended horror. But horror is a relation. So, here, finally, we have an object in the presence of which a self becomes possible, albeit an extremely tenuous and inchoate self.

It would be wrong, I think, to read the horror as the sign of a projective identification. Instead, what seems to me likely is that Bishop is stretching the limits of object relations theory, attempting to think about how an identification would operate in a situation of total abjection before desire. What seems to have happened is an introjection of the whole object, though not of the kind that occurs after a split object has been repaired in the depressive position. Rather, Elizabeth introjects this object in its original state, whole without the usual splitting process by which an object becomes meaningful. As such, it resists signification while, nevertheless, initiating identification, operating not unlike the sublime. The carefully chosen word “horrifying” confirms that the introjection is of the whole breast, and that the identification is introjective rather than projective. The whole object of the depressive position is the reunion of that which pleases with that which upsets from a position in which the sting of both intense pleasure and intense upset has productively dulled (depressed). This breast, a whole object never split, in the abject, unnamable position before identification is horrific: intensely pleasurable and intensely upsetting at the same time.

Desperate to frame this image that has forcefully impressed itself upon her ego in its moment of ultimate fragility, Elizabeth trains her faith upon the codex that has brought these images to her. “I read it right through,” she continues. “I was too shy to stop. / And then I looked at the cover: / the yellow margins, the date” (159). The hope behind these choices seems clear: if the cover of the National Geographic can impress with the same force as the breast, perhaps it can prove a contrast to the breast, pulling Elizabeth backward, out of the abject identification with the whole, ineffable breast, returning her to a state of neutral, curious suspension of object- and self-relations.

Any reader even marginally familiar with the poem knows, however, that a return to her earlier state of suspension is not what is in store, but a further intensification of the horrors and mysteries of identification. “Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain,” she continues (160, emphasis in original). The young Elizabeth considers her Aunt Consuelo “a foolish, timid woman,” and is seemingly put off by this outburst (160). “I might have been embarrassed,” she tells us,

but wasn’t. What took me

completely by surprise

was that it was me:

my voice, in my mouth.

Without thinking at all

I was my foolish aunt,

I—we—were falling, falling,

our eyes glued to the cover

of the National Geographic,

February, 1918. (160)

These lines may very well take us beyond the interpretive limits of Kleinian theory and into, well, Bishopian theory. But it is vitally important that the psychoanalytic moment that precedes this enigmatic comingling of Bishop with her aunt is the introjection of a breast that, in having never been split, manages to be totally distinct from the mother’s breast as a psychic object. Typically, all subsequent breasts are supposed to signify that originary breast, but this one cannot, because it never came to signify in never being split. As an object of pure pleasure and pure upset, it signifies nothing but itself. That this experience is what inaugurates the becoming-one of Elizabeth and Consuelo is highly suggestive. Bishop here recounts a somewhat mystified primal scene. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth has felt the sudden, surprising operation, “Without thinking at all,” of finding another person inside of herself as an object of desire and identification. The vertigo is also important. In this moment of discovering a different intensity to love than she has yet known before, little Elizabeth is in danger of falling forever into the endlessness of the sublime African breast. The violence that lay coiled in the inscrutability of the African breast was never anything as dramatic as rivulets of fire nor as bathetic and cliché as the Long Pig. It was, merely, the danger of losing herself entirely to endless desire, of falling without end.

Little Elizabeth continues to grapple:

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them. (160)

But she can no longer remember “Why should you be one, too?” (160). It is unclear, and will remain so, who, or what, exactly they are. We do not know which they she means, because she does not know to which they she belongs: “I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was. / I gave a sidelong glance / —I couldn’t see any higher— / at shadowy gray knees” (160). Shadowy gray is not blue-black, but it is not white either. An object of real power has arrived in her psyche and, like any fetish object, it has bent all the energies of perception around itself. The fetishization of the Black breast, the granting to it powers over how things appear to be, adds an indeterminacy to life, charges life with the never-before-felt openness of object-choice.

In this scene, through her initiation into desire, Elizabeth has become an adult. “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?” she asks. “What similarities— / . . . / I felt in my throat, or even / the National Geographic / and those awful hanging breasts— / held us all together / or made us all just one?” (161). But her entrée into desire has not only meant the very earliest appearance of her sexuality, of her lesbianism, but also—bound up with that, intersectional with it—is the fact of her becoming one with the people around her. “How had I come to be here,” she asks, “like them, and overhear / a cry of pain that could have / got loud and worse but hadn’t?” (161). She answers her own question in the next, and penultimate, stanza. The only way that she could have become like the adults in the waiting room is through the drawing of the color line:

The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another. (161)

In other words, there is a whole Black world out there, beyond the stark whiteness of the waiting room and its people—a world in which one is likely, now that this has happened, to arrive at junctures wherein the magic powers of the whole, ineffable object magically, primally produce a desire in which one could very easily disappear from oneself, a desire that destabilizes one’s supposedly concretized identifications. The danger of falling into the Black breast is always there now.

But then, as quickly as she disintegrated, Elizabeth reintegrates and moves on with her day:

But then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth of

of February, 1918. (161)

In Elizabeth’s immediate reintegration, which neatly closes the poem, we see something similar to what Foucault sees in Diego Velázquez’s painting, Las Meninas, his reading of which opens The Order of Things. For Foucault’s Velázquez, perspective, dimension, and orientation constitute a vocabulary that simultaneously obscures and articulates the possibility that the viewing subject is both root cause and telos of representation. The lines of perspective that Foucault traces across the painting limn the “essential void” of mimesis: “the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation—of the person it resembles and of the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance.”[20] What Foucault seems to mean is that the painting is not really interested in the Infanta nor in her parents—nor, even, in Velázquez as he is represented on the canvas. Rather, the painting’s interest is in the dynamic relation it occasions between a viewing subject and their own representability, an interest that, were it to be made plain, would rupture totally the structure of representation that initiates and mediates this contact.

What Las Meninas accomplishes through a series of visual feints and perspectival oppositions, “In the Waiting Room” accomplishes through a series of similar discursive maneuvers and juxtapositions. At the crux of the poem is an interstitium subsisting between an account of personal history and an institutional discourse of identity formation. Caught between these two forms of narration—the confessional and the therapeutic—readers find themselves the tacit subject of the poem’s representation, its necessarily disappeared foundation. The poem’s account of the advent of desire thus becomes the readers’: Elizabeth’s journey through the psyche is not a journey through Bishop’s mind, but a journey through how Bishop conceives a mind to be, a simulation of confession and psychic integration that proves therapeutically efficacious, and therefore psychologically “true” or “real,” insofar as it draws the readers to confess to themselves according to the terms of the poem’s analytic theory—to say, “Yes, I know that feeling.” The reintegration of Elizabeth in the final stanza mirrors readers’ own reintegration as they set down the poem, returning to the world, unaware that they have been found out by none other than themselves in the course of their reading—a “finding out” that is only possible within the confines and according to the affordances of the experience established and mediated by the poem’s mimetic structure.

Thus, the poem, along with the psychoanalytic discourse of object relations from which it borrows, is a site of and tool for the formation of a type of subject. What type of subject does the poem suggest to its readers they might be? Well, put simply, the poem seeks to locate within its readers structures of affect and identification that correspond to and corroborate Bishop’s own: white, homoerotic, liberal, educated, cosmopolitan, fetishistic. If readers who approach the poem think themselves free of (or separated from) these structures of affect and identification, the poem, like a session of analysis, will engulf readers in a narrative exercise (i.e., the reading of Bishop’s personal narrative of being little Elizabeth in the waiting room) that works to locate those structures within them and coax them to confession. The poem, like Kleinian psychoanalysis, is thus not really about discovering the form of identity so much as it is about forming an identity that will, once formed, appear natural and essential—as though it was there all along. This is how we know that the poem has a politics. Its ultimate goal is the instantiation of an identity knowledge, which, in this case, is a certain framing of the identification as white that acknowledges the genesis of that identification as the fetishistic attachment to a part of the body of color. Thus, we may read the poem as two kinds of objects at once. It is both the record of the elder Bishop’s analytic initiation into the depressive recognition of the fetish character of her racial attachments and an analytic tool to initiate depressive introjection in its readers, whom it has identified as having the same kind of attachments.[21] Importantly, the poem does not seek to repair the fetishism of either its speaker’s or readers’ racial attachments. It merely articulates the fetishism that it notices in the libidos of speaker and reader as an inescapable fact of their processes of identity formation.

iv. The Schizoaffectivity of Whiteness

This reading of “In the Waiting Room” elucidates the first two readings of this essay, in a gesture that mirrors the psychoanalytic relation of “In the Waiting Room” to Bishop’s earlier attempts to write about race. At issue in my readings of “Cootchie” and “Songs for a Colored Singer” is the absence of a demonstrably white speaker who approaches race as a social dynamic in which they have a role and a set of stakes. “In the Waiting Room,” written three decades after “Cootchie” and “Songs,” finally works out the form of Bishop’s identification as white and so enables her to say something about blackness that is neither aesthetically detached nor performatively appropriative but personally meaningful and honestly confessional. What she acknowledges is her own violent relation to blackness. In “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes,” Sedgwick claims that the triumph of Klein as a thinker is that she “put the objects in object relations. In her concept of phantasy-with-a-p-h, human mental life becomes populated, not with ideas, representations, knowledges, urges, and repressions, but with things, things with physical properties, including people and hacked-off bits of people.”[22] Implicit in the latter of these sentences is also the idea that Klein puts the violence in object relations. Part of what Klein understands is that we can lose the reality of whole persons behind our self-involved cathexis with hacked-off bits of them and that the violence of this hacking is fundamental to the way we make sense of ourselves in the world. Moreover, according to Klein, when I hack up my notions of others, I also hack up my notion of myself. In the Kleinian frame, psychological integration involves the simultaneous repair of both of these notions such that they resemble, as fully and accurately as possible, the reality beyond myself, which includes me as part of it.

Cootchie never materializes as a real character in the poem “Cootchie.” Billie Holiday is never the speaker of “Songs for a Colored Singer.” What “In the Waiting Room” finally suggests is that the reality of these women recedes behind the libidinal cathexis with their bodies. In the first case, it is the blackness of Cootchie’s and her mourners’ skin that offers the tantalizing promise of meaningfully speaking about oneself. In the second case, it is the blackness of Holiday’s voice that is pleasurable, so pleasurable in fact that Bishop wishes to try it on, to play about in it. The cathexis that produces this fetishistic attachment to the pleasurable potentialities that inhere in the Black body opens onto a schizoid picture of reality, wherein one can be white but fail to realize that whiteness and color are concomitant, that to notice the one is to be of the other.

Until “In the Waiting Room,” Bishop represents her whiteness in her poetry as merely a fact of her own libido, that within her which desires and experiences the pleasurable stimulation, aesthetic or otherwise, of that which she can identify as different from her. Severing the reality of Black persons from the phantasmatic object of the Black body hides the more intimate severing, which is that of Bishop’s sense of self from its identification with the historical and social violence of American whiteness. Hiding the violences of one’s identificatory relations from oneself is, in Klein’s terms, schizoid: an affective mechanism that protects one from relations that may disturb and upset by masking them as other object relations. In other words, the fetish character of the Black breast disrupts the potential identification of badness with blackness that the volcano and the cannibals in the magazine suggest to little Elizabeth, and she transforms this psychic violence into the intensity of desire. What “In the Waiting Room” confesses is that Bishop, the historical person, fails to articulate the childhood imbrication of psychic violence and racialized desire until much later in life, living for a long time with this unresolved (so inarticulable) pattern of affect and identification. Unacknowledged violent desire is perhaps the best definition of schizoaffectivity. Schizoaffectivity reacts to its potential unmasking and analysis with defensive paranoias, not unlike the defensive paranoia around race and racism that appears in the 1967 retrospective of her career that Bishop sends to U.T. and Joseph Summers, in which she dismisses concerns over the “condescending” tone in her servant poems (namely, “Manuelzinho” and “Cootchie”) as obvious misreadings.[23] The form of that defensive paranoia is an emotional revolt against the idea that she herself is involved in racialization, rather than a spectator to it, even if she might know this to be logically true. Confronting the fact of her involvement by acknowledging the fetish character of her conception of blackness in “In the Waiting Room,” however, she opens the possibility of confronting the deeper issue: that whiteness is no less a relational object, and no more a subjectivity, than blackness. This is a fundamentally depressive recognition. In a particularly poignant essay, titled “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Muñoz defines the depressive position as “a tolerance of the loss and guilt that underlies the subject’s sense of self—which is to say that it does not avoid or wish away loss and guilt. It is a position in which the subject negotiates reality, resisting the instinct to fall into the delusional realm of the paranoid schizoid.”[24] In applying this definition to white affect, we might amend this statement to read “a tolerance of the loss which one has effected.” The reality that “In the Waiting Room” negotiates, contextualized as it is by Bishop’s oeuvre, follows a script something like this: race is not a received schematic by which one may color the world in various shades of nearness and foreignness, sameness and otherness, but rather a historically determined relationality between subjects and the field of objects in which they all live.[25] The poem acknowledges that it is one of these objects in the world, able to figure its readers’ relations to it, given that the readers occupy a particular social position.[26] While “In the Waiting Room” stops short of therapeutically repairing the violence of fetishism that it notices as an effect of its speaker’s social position, and effects in its readers, critical analysis of the poem can carry out, at least in part, the psychoanalytic intervention which the poem merely begins. Put differently, Bishop provides material through which I, a white queer person, may hold myself to account.[27] Furthermore, the poem’s location of racialized violence in the libido makes it valuable evidence in the ongoing psychoanalytic discussion, emerging from queer of color critique, of the role that the white desire for bodies of color plays in American racial violence.


[1] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 52–53.

[2] See, for instance, Sara Ahmed, “A phenomenology of whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 149–68; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “The invisible weight of whiteness: the racial grammar of everyday life in contemporary America,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, no. 2 (2012): 173–94; Alastair Bonnett, “Geography, ‘race’ and Whiteness: invisible traditions and current challenges,” Area 29, no. 3 (1997): 193–99; Working through Whiteness: International Perspectives, ed. Cynthia Levine-Rasky (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); Derald Wing Sue, “The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Whiteness, White Supremacy, White Privilege, and Racism” in Addressing Racism: Facilitating Cultural Competence in Mental Health and Educational Settings, ed. Madonna G. Constantine and Derald Wing Sue (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006), 15–30; Sue, “Whiteness and Ethnocentric Monoculturalism: Making the ‘Invisible’ Visible,” The American Psychologist 59, no. 8 (2004): 761–69.

The genealogical argument here confirms that white privilege in its myriad forms has often been invisible to the white person; this was never a new idea for non-white Americans and is reflected in the whole history of African American literature. That the formulation of white privilege as “invisible” became a widely understandable critical concept only after Peggy McIntosh used the emergent discourse of “male privilege” to explain the operations of whiteness to a largely white, feminist scholarly audience is particularly revealing of the very same cultural pathology that McIntosh and those who follow her critique.

[3] See Hiram Pérez, A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 24–76. The dynamics of interracial homoeroticism are a particularly American issue in both literature and literary criticism. Pérez’s argument in A Taste for Brown Bodies, in a sense, polemicizes the whole twentieth-century critical enterprise of conceptualizing the gay, white, American male’s narrative perspective—from Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (published in Partisan Review 15, no. 6 [1948]: 664–71, alongside Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations”) and Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) to the second and fourth chapters of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990), and beyond. (A Taste for Brown Bodies contains, for instance, a brilliant critique of the blatant racism and fetishism on display at the 2003 “Gay Shame” conference at the University of Michigan.) Informed by this polemic, what I wish to do is expand it in terms of both gender and genre, as well as proffer a different (because differently motivated) psychoanalytic reading of white racialization, which ultimately comes to a conclusion similar to Pérez’s. My Kleinian reading comes at the question of whiteness from the perspectival angle opposite Pérez’s Freudian reading. To figure the fetishistic attachment of white men to Black male bodies, Pérez reads with the grain of James Baldwin’s story, “Going to Meet the Man,” elucidating its ethos as the critic’s ethos. I read against the grain of Bishop’s poetry, actively resisting her ethos to reveal something she says which she would not probably endorse.

[4] Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 74.

[5] This is certainly not Bishop’s only mention of Cootchie. It is not that Bishop did not think of Cootchie as a whole person ever, but that, when thinking about writing, about trying something herself, Cootchie cannot be a whole person because of certain rhetorical frames within which Bishop operates without realizing it.

[6] William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925), 209.

[7] The poem polarizes. Moore never liked “Cootchie,” and Bishop is defensive about critiques of its tone as late as 1967. In a letter to U.T. and Joseph Summers in October of that year, she dismisses charges of insensitivity in her poem “Manuelzinho” by quipping that “I’ve been accused of that kind of thing a lot, particularly in the social-conscious days—‘Cootchie,’ etc., were found ‘condescending,’ or I lived in a world (I was obviously VERY RICH) where people had Servants, imagine, and so on” (One Art, 479).

[8] Bishop, “Cootchie” in The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 46.

[9] See W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903), 1–12.

[10] See Bishop, “Songs for a Colored Singer,” The Partisan Review 11, no. 4 (1944): 429–32.

[11] Billie Holiday and William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues (New York: Penguin, 1956), 84.

[12] Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17, no. 3 (2006): 20–36, 22, emphasis in original; see also Barbara Johnson, “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 16, no. 1 (1986): 29–47.

[13] My use of affect throughout this essay comes from its classical psychoanalytic definition: that which the analyst notices for the analysand. However, central to the methodology of this paper is a triangulation of poet, speaker, and critic-reader. It is too simple to say that any two of these three figures constitute analyst and analysand at any given moment. Instead, all three of them play the double role of analyst and analysand continually. The simultaneity of the self-interrogation of the poet, speaker, and critic-reader that unfolds over the course of this essay does not collapse us into one figure but figures our self-analyses as mutually dependent and enabling, productive of meaningfully integrated pictures of our personalities only when enacted together. Thus, when I say that Bishop leaves the reader and speaker in the grip of affects which have not resolved into articulable feelings, I mean to say something, not only about the speaker and myself, but about her as well. This triangulation at the root of my methodology grows out of Marta Figlerowicz’s observation that “the question of affect becomes much more critically interesting when—as is the case in contemporary theory—the theorist herself tries to play the double role of doctor and patient, attempting to both acknowledge and control the degrees to which her affects take her by surprise” (Figlerowicz, Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017], 138).

[14] There has been, nevertheless, a critical transition from the end of Bishop’s life to the present. While, in a 1977 article for a special issue of World Literature Today dedicated entirely to Bishop’s work, Anne R. Newman could comfortably claim that the poems “reveal Bishop’s sensitivity to particular intonations, forms and themes of Black music, and taken together, the four poems make a fine statement of what we now call the black experience,” few scholars of literature would now frame the “Songs” this way, either in writing or in a classroom (Newman, “Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Songs for a Colored Singer,’” World Literature Today 51, no. 1 [1977]: 37–40, 37). When I have been taught this poem, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I have been taught it—I think accurately—as misguided but benevolent. The aim of this reading is not to undermine that characterization but to show how the interaction of these two historically freighted terms, misguided and benevolent, points to deep emotional realities operative in the identity project of whiteness, which emerge from a complex history: not only the violent imperialism of slaveholders and settler colonists, but also the fraternal imperialism of enlightened despots and European revolutionaries, and the successive history of seemingly random alterations to these iterative positions. That both of these rhetorical frames, that of the white reactionary and that of the white progressive, are violent is the idea that “Songs” finally fails to capture, and with which “In the Waiting Room” begins to wrestle.

[15] Bishop’s aunt’s name was not Consuelo; it was Florence (Giroux, “Chronology,” One Art, xxiii). When set alongside the other fictive choices that Bishop makes in this poem, this change of name becomes interesting. In a poem about the mercuriality of childhood racial and sexual identification, Bishop chooses to give her aunt a name which may just as probably belong to a white, Black, or Indigenous Latin American person. It is relevant that Lota de Macedo Soares is Latina particularly later in the poem, when Aunt Consuelo becomes the principal object of identification. This name change connects to the slipperiness of Aunt Consuelo’s claim to literality: a reading of racialized desire in “In the Waiting Room” in no way precludes, and is in fact importantly intersectional with, the other available Kleinian reading of the poem, which focuses upon the maternal absence in Bishop’s life and its figuration of her romantic and sexual attachments. For a reading that, like mine, is preoedipal, but which reads the mother-child identificatory drama in “In the Waiting Room,” see Martin Bidney, “‘Controlled Panic’: Mastering the Terror of Dissolution and Isolation in Elizabeth Bishop’s Epiphanies,” Style 34, no. 3 (2000): 487–510.

[16] Quoted in Lee Edelman, “The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Waiting Room,’” Contemporary Literature 26, no. 2 (1985): 179–196, 184. Heather Treseler offers a distinct, though related, possible explanation for Bishop’s insistence on the existence of the article: “Bishop’s strenuous assertions about the literality of these images suggest her anxiety to appear as the reporter, rather than the conjurer, of scenes with blatant ethnic caricature and sexual undertones. . . . the poet obscures the political and erotic connotations evident in her drafts of ‘In the Waiting Room,’ although queer desire is not entirely absent from the child narrator’s dramatized fixation” (Treseler, “‘Too Shy to Stop’: Elizabeth Bishop and the Scene of Reading” in Elizabeth Bishop and the Literary Archive, ed. Bethany Hicok [Amherst, MA: Lever Press, 2020], 17–43, 35).

[17] It will likely never be clear whether Bishop intentionally or unintentionally combined articles from multiple issues of National Geographic into one. It will also likely never be clear if she meant to deceive in the 1977 interview, or if she was merely confused. Whatever the case may be, Bishop’s linkage of the cannibals and the volcano in this way is both psychologically and critically suggestive. For the article in the October 1919 issue, see E. Torday, “Curious and Characteristic Customs of Central African Tribes,” The National Geographic Magazine 36, no. 4 (1919): 342–68.

[18] Bishop was familiar with Melanie Klein at least as early as 1959: she recommends Klein’s book Envy and Gratitude to Robert Lowell in a letter dated March 30th of that year. For a discussion of that letter, a 1971 love letter to Alice Methfessel that cites Klein, and Bishop’s relationship to psychoanalysis more broadly, see Richard Flynn, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Sanity: Childhood Trauma, Psychoanalysis, and Sentimentality” in Elizabeth Bishop and the Literary Archive, 45–63.

[19] For Klein’s explication of these mechanisms as explicitly regards the breast of the mother, see Klein and Joan Riviere, Love, Hate, and Reparation (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1964). For a more general explication of these mechanisms that includes but also exceeds the infantile psyche, see Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 27, nos. 3–4 (1946): 99–110.

[20] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), 18.

[21] Edelman makes a similar argument about “In the Waiting Room.” He writes, of the volcano in the poem, “The inside/outside dichotomy is reversed and discredited at once, and the effect of this maneuver on the theory of reading is to imply that the textual inside masters the reader outside of it far more than the reader can ever master the text. Or, more precisely, the very distinction between reader and text is untenable: the reader finds herself read by the text in which she is already inscribed and in which she reinscribes herself in the process of performing her reading” (“Geography of Gender,” 188).

[22] Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 3 (2007): 626–642, 629.

[23] While schizoaffective disorder is a long-recognized psychotic mood disorder, which the APA has included in all editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with a gradually but profoundly evolving set of diagnostic criteria, my use of schizoaffectivity here does not gesture toward that clinical history but toward a different therapeutic history. By schizoaffectivity, I mean a situation in which one’s affects result from a state of internal contradiction, of desire and aversion intricately intertwined. I posit that, in moments of interracial contact or when considering the possibility of such, whiteness is just this kind of schizoaffective situation. This essay grew out of a simple realization that I had while reading “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms.” Klein’s purpose in “Notes” is to theorize to other therapists about a schizophrenia which they already know is there, to offer them a root cause for it which does not change at all the criteria of its diagnosis or the way they see and identify it but shifts the direction of its treatment, of their approach to it. Klein’s piece rests on the assumption that a schizoid cast of mind is, through its display of affect, legibly readable on the body of another in a way that does not need explaining and, conversely, that how to treat that cast of mind requires a deep understanding of where it comes from. In Bishop, I saw an opportunity to demonstrate something which I have learned to read plainly on my own body and on the bodies of the white people I know, which is the impossible everyday reality—visible in the continuous link-chain of embodied affective responses we have to the stimuli of the world—of identifying with a race without being able to see its operations, how it affects and what it effects. Reading Bishop’s representation (reading) of her own libido as a white queer is, therefore, a form of self-reading and, more radically, seeking to understand the object-relational form of her schizoid libidinal attachments is a form of self-therapizing. This is what I understand “reparative reading” to be, which, it should be noted, is a significantly more paranoid-looking process than Sedgwick had in mind when she posited the notion. See Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–52.

[24] José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006): 675–688, 687.

[25] To say that the poem acknowledges that everyone is available to everyone else as an object of various forms of identification and desire, racialized and otherwise, is a different sense of unity with others than the kind proffered by Steven Gould Axelrod in his reading of “In the Waiting Room”: Elizabeth “is shocked now not by otherness but by similarity—the human contiguity that ‘made us all just one.’” (Axelrod, “Bishop, History, and Politics” in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop, ed. Jonathan Ellis [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014], 45). However, Axelrod and I agree that “In the Waiting Room” is ultimately “the culmination of Bishop’s racial politics—the achievement of the desired empathy that had so long eluded her” (45). In my reading, it is not that the little Elizabeth experiences this empathy; rather, the story of little Elizabeth’s distinct lack of empathetic connection functions as a therapeutic exercise in which the empathy, and its attendant guilt, may be incorporated into the identity of the writer. Witnessing the writer’s conversion from one psychic position to another, the reader may empathize with the writer, thus confessing their own complicity in the same project of whiteness as the writer and the speaker. “In the Waiting Room” is thus not totally different from this essay: white writing by a white person about white feelings.

[26] While this essay focuses primarily upon the psychic as its field of inquiry, it is important to note that affect and identification never happen, for Klein, absent a social field (for this is the field of objects); indeed, it is the social that forms the conditions of all possible relations to oneself and others. This is perhaps particularly true when it comes to thinking race through Klein since racial difference is so evidently socially constructed. Muñoz makes this point using the rhetoric of performativity, arguing that “The depressive position . . . offers a useful insight into one dimension of what I am calling feeling brown. Feeling brown is a mode of racial performativity, a doing within the social that surpasses limitations of epistemological renderings of race” (Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” 687).

[27] Kirstin Hotelling Zona makes a similar claim about the purpose of reading for race in Bishop’s poetry: “it is precisely Bishop’s determination to expose the tension between her attempts to identify with those marked as racially different from herself and her own investment in maintaining those very distinctions that creates the opportunity for us to reexamine our own habits of identification while reading her poems” (Zona, “Bishop: Race, Class, and Gender” in The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop, 49, emphasis in original).