Elizabeth Bishop 1965
“Filling Station” was published in Elizabeth Bishop’s third volume, Questions of Travel, (1965), most of which was written in Brazil. The book is divided into two parts: “Brazil” and “Elsewhere.” “Filling Station” and the poems in “Elsewhere” evoke the geographies, both physical and emotional, of Bishop’s childhood.
Even though Bishop traveled extensively in her life, it was not the grand view that interested her. As one can see in “Filling Station,” she was more inclined to focus on the details of ordinary life. Once she thanked a friend who had sent her a pair of binoculars: “The world has wonderful details if you can get it just a little closer than usual.” “Filling Station” shows what can happen when someone takes the time to look closer than usual and see beyond the surface of things.
“Filling Station” recreates the scene, in keenly observed visual and tactile detail, of a family-run gas station. It is not typical subject matter for a poem. Everything is startlingly “dirty” and “oil-permeated” in this little cosmos, from the father’s work clothes to the embroidered doily. After observing the “overall black translucency” of this place, the poem’s speaker begins to ask questions: “Do they live in the station?” After all, there is a dirty dog lying “comfy” on the greasy wicker sofa and comic books are on a taboret, or wicker stand. “Why these things?” the voice asks. The question is not answered directly or immediately. Despite the grime of it all, the poem continues, “somebody” cares: “Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe.”
From the embroidered daisy-like flowers to the arrangement of softly chanting cans, it finally concludes there is evidence “somebody loves us all.”
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911, the only child of William Thomas Bishop and Gertrude May Boomer Bishop. Unlike the vaguely poor family in “Filling Station,” Bishop’s family was prosperous, but the circumstances sad. When she was only eight months old, her father died of a kidney disorder. Distraught over her husband’s death, Gertrude Bishop drifted in and out of mental hospitals. In 1916 she was permanently institutionalized. Elizabeth, age five, never saw her mother again. Bishop’s life was rootless from then on. For a brief happy year, she lived in rural Nova Scotia with her mother’s parents, but then her wealthy Bishop relatives demanded she move back to Boston. There, Elizabeth quickly became depressed, asthmatic, and prone to debilitating allergies.
After nine terrible months, Elizabeth was “rescued” by her Aunt Maud Boomer Shepherdson, who brought her home to her poor neighborhood in Revere, Massachusetts. Aunt Maud nursed the sick child, and introduced her not only to poetry, but to a place, Bishop remembers, where “we were almost all aliens, dreamers, drunkards.” The setting and inhabitants of “Filling Station” were typical of Bishop’s surroundings in those years. Bishop never knew any truly grounding sense of home except, perhaps, in the words of poems, stories, and songs. As she grew older, her love of literature was soon matched by an ability to write. At the Walnut Hill School for Girls in Natick, she dominated the pages of The Blue Pencil.
Bishop entered Vassar College in 1930 and found herself in the company of other gifted writers. But she also found herself falling in love with other women and drinking heavily. Her academic performance was brilliant at times, yet inconsistent. She fell into periods of extreme withdrawal and depression as she attempted to hide her passions and habits. In her last year at Vassar, Bishop met the eccentric poet Marianne Moore, who became not only a great friend, but her most important mentor. Bishop wandered after college from New York City to Europe to Key West, Florida, writing the poems that would comprise the manuscript of her first book, North & South (1946). In 1947, she met the poet Robert Lowell, and the two became close friends. Through Lowell’s strong literary connections, Bishop gained recognition and support for her work.
In 1951, Bishop traveled to Brazil and stayed there, having fallen in love with the countryside and with Lota Soares, whom she had met in New York in 1942. It was in Brazil that Bishop wrote “Filling Station” and the other poems of Questions of Travel (1965). The ten years she lived with Soares in Samambaia were Bishop’s happiest. In 1961 Lota Soares moved the household to Rio. Bishop disliked the crowded city with its noise, heat, and threats of revolution, so she left Brazil in 1966 and took a teaching post at the University of Washington in Seattle. There she fell in love again, and her relationship with Soares and Brazil began to disintegrate.
Against doctors’ orders, the mentally and physically exhausted Soares flew to New York to visit Bishop on September 19, 1967. During the night, Soares took an overdose of tranquilizers, and died five days later. A distraught Bishop drank ever more heavily, compounding her depression and asthma. Despite the turmoil, her literary reputation continued to rise, helped in large part by filling Robert Lowell’s sabbatical post at Harvard, giving her new visibility and greater courage to do readings. Bishop’s Complete Poems (1969) drew much acclaim, as did the prize-winning Geography III(1976) which, with characteristic restraint, maps the terrain of her many personal losses. This theme is captured profoundly in her poem “One Art” and its refrain: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
On October 6, 1979, just before she was to give a reading at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, Bishop died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm. She was sixty-eight.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The first line of “Filling Station” is an exclamation: “Oh, but it is dirty!” The last line of that stanza also exclaims, in an imperative warning: “Be careful with that match!” Between those lines, this world is described as black and greasy. And that “overall black translucency” is “disturbing,” not because it is unclean, but because it is altogether fragile. With a single match, it could all go up in flames. The voice that exclaims “it is dirty!” is more caring and maternal than judgmental.
Particular features of the “little” station begin to emerge in the second stanza. This is a family-run business (as was that of Bishop’s father), and everyone shares the same patina of grease. At the helm is “Father” in his “oil-soaked monkey suit,” which is obviously too small for him. It “cuts him under the arms,” suggesting both that Father is large, and may be too poor to afford work clothes that fit him well. His many unnamed sons, described as “thoroughly dirty,” don’t emerge as individuals; they all seem to be the same—“quick and saucy / and greasy”—as they assist their father in servicing the automobiles. The lines of this stanza have settled from exclamation into clear-eyed declaratives, statements of observation.
Stanza three begins with a question: “Do they live in the station?” In these lines, the presence of domestic features—a porch with its wicker furniture and lazy dog—suggests the possibility. “Quite comfy” specifically describes the dog, but also the general atmosphere of the place, despite its pervasive dirtiness. The speaker notes there is little distance from the pumps to the porch, which is also “impregnated” by grease.
The question that begins stanza three continues to be answered in stanza four. The eye travels next to a taboret and adjacent begonia. These objects, in all their “unrehearsed reality,” are composed within the “frame” of this stanza much like one of Bishop’s watercolor paintings. The taboret is adorned with “some comic books” whose contents are unspecified. What is important to the poem is their color, for it is the “only note of color” in this otherwise oil-clouded scene. One is left to imagine the “certain” or bright colors of the comic books, which lie “upon a big dim doily.” A doily is a lace or linen cloth, often handmade, used to protect and adorn a piece of furniture. This large doily is “dim” from exposure to the same substance that permeates the family’s furniture and clothing. The houseplant, a begonia, is not attractive in the
- The American Academy of Poets’ online site, http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=7 (January 2001), has an Elizabeth Bishop exhibit that contains a photo, a concise biography, selected bibliography, texts of several poems (including “Filling Station”), and links to other Bishop sites.
- Another excellent web site, “Modern American Poetry,” contains portions of published criticism of several Bishop poems, including “Filling Station,” “The Fish,” “The Armadillo,” and “One Art.” It also has excerpts of the correspondence between Bishop and Marianne Moore, and six Bishop book jacket designs. Three of them feature her watercolor painting. See http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/ (January 2001).
- A special collection of Bishop papers is held at her alma mater, Vassar College. A description of those papers and other library collections can be found at http://iberia.vassar.edu/bishop (January 2001).
- You can hear four contemporary poets read Bishop’s “Sonnet” at Atlantic Monthly’s website, http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/soundings/bishop.htm (January 2001).
- A small selection of Bishop poems can be heard on an audio collection called “Poet’s Night: 11 Poets Celebrate,” a recording of a poetry reading in New York City in 1996. The tape can be ordered through http://www.audiobooks.com (January 2001).
conventional way. The reader learns nothing of its color or foliage, even though begonias are usually grown for their showy leaves and blooms. This one, instead, is big and “hirsute,” or hairy. It seems to have taken on the general masculinity of the family business.
The next-to-last stanza moves from observation into questioning—“why?” The plant seems “extraneous,” irrelevant or unessential to the practical dirty workaday business of filling gas tanks. So, “why is this plant here?” the poem asks. Likewise, “why” the taboret? It seems its only reason-to-be is to hold comic books. Even calling it a “taboret” seems an exotic gesture on the part of the poem’s speaker, where the more inelegant “stand” might have sufficed. And finally, “Why, oh why, the doily?” exclaims the voice, as though such decor merits the question twice. “Why this gratuitous bit of beauty in such a dingy place?” “Why” this once-pretty piece of handwork? As if to probe the mystery, the eye of the poem draws closer to the doily and finds it an odd combination of fresh and stale, both “embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites” and “heavy with gray crochet.”
No reasonable “because” answers arrive to satisfy this series of “whys.” Instead, the last stanza registers a change in consciousness, leading from one mystery to another. Just as oil “fills” every surface and opening within reach of the pumps, the mysterious presence of “Somebody” fills the last stanza. Regardless of “why” the doily and plants exist in a filling station, “somebody” brings beauty and care to that unlikely place. Somebody has infused a “useless” loveliness into this small world, even into the arrangement of oil cans, so that the visible letters seem to chant; “. . . they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO / to high-strung automobiles.” The only answer to “why” reaches beyond logic and practicality to love. “Somebody loves us all,” the poem concludes simply, and profoundly. The journey of perception from first stanza to last has led from surface to depth: from an almost-fussy focus on the dirty aspect of things, to a consciousness of their connection with something deeper, a love that fills the station and beyond.
Beauty and Aesthetics
An oil-soaked filling station seems an odd subject for a poem. This scene—“Oh, but it is dirty!”— is a stark contrast to those objects of natural and human beauty, which have traditionally inspired poets and artists. An oil-soaked monkey suit, a dirty dog, and a doily heavy with gray crochet would normally avert the eye, not attract it. Bishop’s poetics, however, required a certain morality. It was part of her “aesthetic ethic” to be responsible for what she sees, even if what stands before her, like the moose in another poem, is “homely as a house.”
Bishop’s mentor and friend, Marianne Moore, encouraged Bishop to revere the most ordinary, seemingly ugly things of the world, to see them as worthy of attention and naming. In “The Fish,” as in “Filling Station,” the poet’s patient looking is rewarded in illumination. When she first catches the huge fish, “He hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely . . . infested / with tiny white sea-lice,” but as the poem proceeds, something else happens: “I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat,” until at last “everything / was rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.”
As “Filling Station” proceeds stanza by stanza, the reader witnesses a similar process of revelation. The poet’s eye lingers on the greasy scene long enough to stir curiosity: “Do they live in the station?” “Why the extraneous plant?” Instead of answers, the questions lead to a different way of seeing. The eye of the poem begins to see a certain harmoniousness and the presence of intentional spots of beauty, even though the surfaces of the scene are uniformly dingy. The eye has looked long enough to penetrate, and go beyond the usual judgments of such things, as unworthy of art or attention. Moreover, this beauty is not an accident: “Somebody embroidered the doily” and “Somebody / arranges the rows of cans.” Some unnamed being “waters the plant” and cares for this grimy little cosmos, thus bringing a beauty to it that subverts all poetic cliché. At the end of the poem, beauty finds its source in love, and the poem suddenly opens out to “us all.” In doing so, it suggests that no human being, no matter how “thoroughly dirty,” is beyond the beautifying power of love.
Masculine and Feminine
“Filling Station” presents the reader with a microcosm, a little world, unified by the pervasive presence of oil, and complete with human and animal, work and rest, order and disorder, masculine and feminine. Feminist critics would be especially interested in the presence of the latter, those “markers” in the poem that indicate a consciousness of gender.
Feminist criticism is one of the most important trends in literary criticism in the last quarter-century. Generally speaking, feminist critics look at the presence, or absence, of a feminine consciousness in works of literature and in the ways works by women are received. They also seek to repair what they view as centuries of exclusion of women writers from a male-dominated Western literary
Topics for Further Study
- “Filling Station” and other Bishop poems teach readers to look for aesthetic beauty or order in unlikely places. Write a poem that observes in close detail the unexpected “art” of an ordinary place, such as a shoe store, a waiting room (see Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”), a laundromat, a bagel store, or a car wash.
- The family-run business, like that of the gas station in the poem, is an endangered economic species. Research and write a paper that investigates the modern history of family-run business in the United States, and the predictions for its future.
- Create a short documentary film of small businesses in your town or city, a mosaic of brief interviews, snatches of candid conversations, and images. Pay close attention to the presence (or not) of a human “somebody” in the surroundings of the business, dirty or otherwise.
- In stanza three, “Filling Station” asks the question “Do they live in the station?” Many Americans commute hours to their workplaces, even as an increasing number are relocating their work to home offices. Study the impact of home-based work on family, economy, environment, and/or community.
canon. Feminist criticism has significantly raised the awareness of gender and sex roles in literature.
The masculinity of “Filling Station” is suggested in rather traditional images. The automobile industry—manufacture, repair, and service—has been largely controlled by men, and this was still certainly the case during the decades from which Bishop draws on her memory. Accordingly, this station is a father and son operation. Moreover, the language of male sexuality is as pervasive as the petroleum. This is, after all, a “filling” station equipped with several “pumps,” and the furniture is “impregnated” by grease. The stereotypical dog, “man’s best friend,” lies on the wicker sofa, just as dirty as his human companions.
However, even though the inhabitants and surfaces of this place are distinctly masculine, there is a feminine consciousness to match it, revealed in the poem’s voice and in the traces of a feminine aesthetic in the station. It happens in the first line— “Oh, but it is dirty!”—the fussy tone of a woman for whom cleanliness is a priority. “Be careful with that match!” has the maternal sound of one who is naturally concerned for the safety and health of her household. Beginning in stanza three, the poem questions “why” the presence of a domestic aesthetic amidst this male-dominated place: a begonia, embroidered doily (“daisy stitch”), a wicker taboret, a soothing arrangement of cans. These can be read as feminine markers in the poem, and therefore open to an examination of gender awareness and stereotyping. But the poem never says “she” in the last stanza, leaving the agent of this care and aesthetic open to question. The “somebody” who attends this scene and “loves us all” may be beyond the ascribing of gender.
Because it has no consistent, formal pattern of rhyme or meter, Bishop’s “Filling Station” is technically free verse. But even a quick glance at the page reveals that free verse is not free of form; it is not shapeless or undisciplined. As the poet Denise Levertov would say, free verse that is truly poetry is never “spineless”; it is not simply prose with line breaks. Bishop wrote both free verse and in traditional forms, such as the poem she called simply “Sestina,” whose formal repetition of lines and images—grandmother, stove, tears, almanac— reveals its ultimate theme, the profound mysteries and losses of Bishop’s childhood. Her free verse style is known for its disciplined accuracy of word choice, restrained emotion, and lucid description.
The shapeliness of this free verse poem emerges in part from its well-proportioned six stanzas. Each stanza is composed of six to eight lines, and each of its relatively short lines contains an average of six to seven syllables. This design creates a certain rhythmic and visual tidiness that is in tension with the dirty foreground of the filling station and the bursts of service to those “high-strung automobiles.” Yet, “somebody” has clearly arranged the stanzas and lines, and therefore the poem’s form supports its humorous assertion of mystery in the last stanza: that “Somebody / arranges the rows of cans” to chant “ESSO—SO—SO—SO.”
The poem’s cohesiveness also arises from the repetition of certain words and images. The general idea of “dirtiness” is announced at the beginning, and specified by variations on the reality of “oil”: “oil-soaked,” “oil-permeated,” “black translucency,” “greasy,” “grease-impregnated.” There is also a verbal pun on “doily,” a bit of domestic finery that rhymes with “oily.” The questions of stanzas three and five also structure the experience of perception, paradoxically opening out into something much larger than the little cosmos of the station. And finally, the repetition of “Somebody” in the last stanza points to mystery. It is some body, but the reader does not know whom, who waters and arranges and loves, and at the same time, it is somebody, not merely some one, a presence grounded in the realities of monkey-suits and hot engines.
Elizabeth Bishop was a poet who knew both wealth and poverty intimately. She was born into a wealthy family, but for reasons of health spent several childhood years in her Aunt Maud’s tiny tenement in Revere, Massachusetts, and summers in the rural simplicity of Nova Scotia with her grandparents. As an independently wealthy adult she traveled widely, but not extravagantly. Such circumstances helped develop the fruitful tensions in a poem such as “Filling Station.” She wrote the poem while living in Brazil in the 1950s, a place and time that spurred memories of her own strangely textured childhood.
Noting Bishop’s collection of folk art from Brazil—crudely carved saints and altars-in-bottles—biographer Brett Millier observes that “all her life Elizabeth had a romantic, esthetic appreciation of poor people and the ways in which they ‘made do’ on limited resources, especially the ways they made art.” “Filling Station” clearly shows Bishop’s interest in the ways common people bring beauty into their lives from the most ordinary materials and resources at hand. As Bishop was to observe in Brazil, some of the most striking examples of such art come from cultures of the native Americas.
Before its conquest by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, the native people of Mexico and Central America created objects of great beauty from their natural resources. In ancient Mexico, gold, silver,
Compare & Contrast
- 1892: The first successful gasoline-powered automobile is built and tested by Charles and Frank Duryea in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The brothers are afraid of being ridiculed for their invention, so they test the vehicle indoors. A year later, another model undergoes a trial run in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1941: As part of the national wartime effort to limit consumption and curb inflation, a gasoline curfew closes filling stations from 7 p.m. to 7 A.M. in seventeen states on the East Coast.
1973: An oil embargo imposed by OAPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) creates a serious shortage at U.S. filling stations and temporarily closes oil-dependent factories. In November, President Nixon calls for nationwide energy conservation measures, including extension of Daylight Savings Time, reduction of highway speed limits, lower temperatures in federal buildings, and a ban on Sunday gasoline sales. The embargo is lifted in March of 1974.
1989: The worst oil spill in U.S. history occurrs on March 24th, when the Exxon supertanker Valdez runs aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska and dumps 240,000 barrels of oil into the water, destroying and endangering wildlife for over 730 miles of coastline. Among the fines levied against Exxon over the next five years is an order in August of 1994 for the oil company to pay over $5.2 billion in compensatory and punitive damages.
and copper were plentiful and accessible, and from those metals, the Aztec people created masterpieces of jewelry, masks, and sacred objects. However, as the Spaniards conquered the native people, they melted down the beautiful jewelry and sent it back to Europe, dug mines, made slaves of the Aztecs, and forbad them to use precious metals. Of necessity, the Indians turned to tin.
With their skill in metalwork, they soon created beautiful mirror frames, jewelry, ornaments, and candle holders with the shiny, malleable metal. A new form of art thus arose out of political and economic necessity. Much tin work today comes from the city of Oaxaca, home to a very large native Indian population. Among other Oaxacan arts are exquisitely hand carved and brightly painted mythic animals, each of which is individually signed by the artisan who created it.
Like the native people of Mexico, the Kuna Indians of Panama also developed a unique art form, known as molas to tell the continuing stories of their culture—the tragedies of Spanish conquest, their retreat into the mountain jungles to survive, the building of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, the Kuna revolt in 1925 and subsequent independence in 1930, and today, of their participation in national politics. Molas are vibrantly colored, stitched designs that have been created by Kuna women since the late 1800s. Besides historical events, molas portray the birds, plants, and animals native to the islands, jungles, and villages where the four groups of Kuna Indians live. In their traditional designs and colors—red, yellow, blue, and black—molas resemble much earlier forms of body painting and decoration practiced for centuries by the Kuna Indians.
The largest country in Central America is Nicaragua. It is a country with a history of violence, both natural and political. It is located on the “Ring of Fire,” a geographic area so named for its vulnerability to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch devastated the population of Nicaragua in 1998, leaving over four thousand dead or missing and over half a million homeless.
Natural upheavals seem to have been matched in recent decades with political ones. Dictators and foreign armies have oppressed the Nicaraguan people for centuries, ever since Columbus claimed Nicaragua for Spain in 1502. The Somoza rule of dictators began in 1937, and after years of resistance, a group of revolutionaries called the Sandinistas came to power and overthrew the government in 1979. This war between the government Contras and the Sandinistas gained worldwide attention in the early 1980s.
During this time, a centuries-old art form known as “the gigantona and little Pepe” was used in the Sandinistan resistance to government oppression. Gigantona, “the giant one,” is an eight-foot tall puppet, a female figure richly dressed and decorated who dances and swings through the streets and villages, accompanied by a puppet called “little Pepe,” who jokes, teases, and tells stories. During the Contra-Sandinista war, the Sandanistas used performances of the “Giant One and Little Pepe” frequently to help free political prisoners, accuse those who had betrayed the revolution, and encourage people to remain strong during the violence and upheaval of change.
Elizabeth Bishop also observed phenomena that seemed “larger than life” in Brazil, even while she wrote of the persistence of art among the poorest and least educated. “Manuelzinho,” a long poem in Questions of Travel, is the portrait of a Brazilian man, “Half squatter, half tenant” who both exasperated Bishop and fascinated her. She calls him “the world’s worst gardener since Cain.” Yet, artist that he is, he edges “the beds of silver cabbages / with red carnations, and lettuces / mix with alyssum.” He brings her “giant ones” from his efforts: “a mystic three-legged carrot, / or a pumpkin ‘bigger than the baby.’” At the end of her poetic address to this man, whom she respects in an odd way, Bishop observes, “You paint—heaven knows why—the outside of the crown / and brim of your straw hat. . . . One was gold for a while, / but the gold wore off, like plate.” Much like the surprising presence of a begonia in a grease-stricken filling station is this ring of gold around a sweaty straw hat, another testimony by Bishop to the necessity of art.
According to biographer Brett Millier, Elizabeth Bishop often included “Filling Station” when she gave a reading of her poems, perhaps because it was a signature piece for her; perhaps she simply liked to read it. Although not as often discussed and anthologized as “Man-Moth,” “Armadillo,” or “Sestina,” “Filling Station” is indeed typical of Bishop’s restrained style and acute, nearly childlike observation of ordinary things, places, and people. Critic William Jay Smith notes that “there has always been in Elizabeth Bishop’s work a kind of childlike, primitive discovery of relationship” which she establishes through questions: “why?” and “who?” and “what?” And “Filling Station” is certainly typical of that poetic, primitive questioning: “Why the taboret? / Why, oh why the doily?” Critic Bonnie Costello suggests that Bishop’s interrogative, or questioning disposition is part of her fundamental desire for wholeness, her search for resolution “without reducing experience to simple answers.” In the process of the poet’s own genuine change of consciousness, says Costello, the questions somehow “become our own.”
In an essay for American Poetry Review, Charles Mann describes another important aesthetic habit of Bishop’s: her painstaking revisions, her careful shaping of language until the poem carries as perfectly as possible the emotional textures of her observation. “The Moose” took no less than twenty-five years to write. “At the Fishhouses,” revised at least seven times, is the focal point of Mann’s close reading. In “Filling Station” one can see the result of what Mann identifies as her basic pattern of revising: “a move from the poem being merely a series of intelligent, often prose-like observations, to one that conveys these observations as sensually experienced presences.” The movement of “Filling Station,” likewise, is from the oily surface of things to the presence behind their “art.”
Exactly what that presence is, or whether it exists at all, is open to question for some critics. Robert Dale Parker argues that “Filling Station” is ultimately a poem of supreme irony, established by that unspecified presence, the “somebody” in the last line. Parker suspects that “somebody” could just as easily be “nobody,” or, if that somebody is “God,” that such a love might “become only a greater irony, if the love of God is no love we expect to know.” C. K. Doreski is less troubled by matters of irony than of gender, and believes that the poem’s final mystery turns on the “absence of an actual feminine presence.”
Other critics are less interested in the poet’s work than in the relationship between her life and her art. Donald Stanford, for example, talks about the tensions between Bishop’s “undisciplined” life and her always “disciplined” poetry. Despite her “restless, disoriented, and distraught life,” he says, Bishop managed to write lucidly crafted, luminous poems. Stanford concludes, “and that is why a few of her poems have gained a permanent place in our literature.”
Jonathan N. Barron
Barron is an associate professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has co-edited Jewish American Poetry, from the University Press of New England, and Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, forthcoming from the University of Missouri Press, as well as a forthcoming collection of essays on the poetic movement, New Formalism. Beginning in 2001, he will be the editor-in-chief of The Robert Frost Review. In the following essay, he considers the impact of gender on Bishop’s poem.
The American poet Mary Kinzie believes that no poem worthy of the art can depend only on a mastery of technique and craft. She claims that aesthetic talent alone cannot define a poem. Instead, she argues that “the aesthetic mission is also a moral one.” Craft, in other words, must be connected to morality insofar as every poet is responsible for the vision, imagery, tone, and story of the poem. Kinzie adds that “the poet and the poem alike must be held responsible for the nature of their insights.”
This is a controversial but necessary position to take with regard to poetry because it implies that the poem communicates information that must be judged in both ethical and moral terms for its insights. Kinzie refuses to ignore the ethical, moral message of a given poem. Whatever its story may be, no matter how ugly, how painful, how potentially upsetting, Kinzie insists that the reader nonetheless make the poet responsible for the story he or she tells. This position is controversial because so many critics prefer only to discuss craft and form. They even prefer to ignore what the poem and the poet say.
This way of discussing poetry was particularly common with regard to the work of Elizabeth Bishop. For most of her life, Bishop’s poetry was plagued by a critical failure of insight. Praised for her talent and her craft, her stories were dismissed as minor, unimportant, merely descriptive. She was said to lack vision, depth, grand themes in her work. Critics would praise her imagery, her metrics, her precision, her ability to make a story come to a conclusion,
“In poetry, every word harkens back to its larger cultural, social, and literary history. In a poem, the word ‘station,’ when it appears in the story of a journey refers back to that Christian use of the term. And, from that perspective, this poem describes one woman’s station on her long journey through the world.”
but they had very little to say about her themes. Even after her death, critics continued to dismiss the force of Bishop’s intellectual depth. Even when they did acknowledge the deeper potential of so many of her poems, they often dismissed what she said as either a cliché or too typically sentimental.
Reacting to “Filling Station” in 1984, for example, the notable literary scholar and Yale professor, David Bromwich, commented that the poem was laden with “awkward condescension.” He felt that like so many of her poems its first impact on a reader will “dwindle as one comes to see them more clearly.” To Bromwich, in other words, Bishop’s poems are too often more flash than fire. On the other hand, Bromwich did do what the poet Mary Kinzie called for: he did take Bishop’s story more seriously than most. With regard to “Filling Station,” he felt that the poem suffered from a class bias. He felt that in this poem one reads the inner thoughts of an upper-class snob unable socially or emotionally to cope with the poor. Bromwich, therefore, judges the poem as a failure not only for its lack of a deep complex psychological story, but also for its decidedly elitist views.
Bromwich was very much on the right track insofar as he did discuss the poem in terms of the speaker, but he was also very much mistaken in his evaluation of the poem’s psychological depths. Returning
What Do I Read Next?
- In 1961, the editors of the Time/Life World Library series asked Elizabeth Bishop to write the text for their Brazil volume. She accepted the job, but rapidly grew to hate it. She chafed under pressures of deadlines, and fumed over the editors’ insistence on covering topics she was ill prepared to write about, in a tone foreign to her temperament. The first three chapters of Bishop’s Brazil (1962) are the least “ravaged” by editors and the most indicative of her journalistic style.
- In stark contrast to her distaste for writing the Time/Life book was an earlier project Bishop undertook as a “labor of love” in Brazil. Not long after moving there, she discovered the Portuguese diary of a young girl, “Helena Morley” (Dona Alice Brant), whose stories of growing up in the village of Diamantina, Brazil, reminded Bishop in many ways of her own childhood in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Bishop undertook the translation with passionate care, and after five years, it was published as The Diary of Helena Morley (1957). Bishop’s thirty-five-page introduction to the diary is her longest piece of prose, and her strongest, according to biographer Brett Millier.
- Elizabeth Bishop perpetually felt she was an outsider, no matter where she was living, and many of her poems tell the story of life as a “guest.” The Storyteller (1989), by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, also tells the story of an outsider and his odyssey among the Machiguenga Indians, a primitive tribe of Amazon peoples. Saul Zuratas, a Peruvian Jew, not only becomes a member of the tribe, but their storyteller, their “voice.” In this story about the transforming power of stories, the narrator looks on while the Machiguengas and their odd bard, “ex-Jew, ex-white man, and ex-Westerner,” deal with the encroachment of modern commerce and technology upon the Amazon.
- Novelist Joseph Conrad was an “outsider” to the English language. Polish was his first, and French his second language. English, in which he wrote brilliantly, was his third. Heart of Darkness (1921), a novel of narrative genius, is a story whose central character is radically unlike that of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller. Kurtz, the protagonist, represents the worst of colonialism in Africa. He silences the voices of the native Congo people in his maniacal thirst for power and dominance. His is the “heart of darkness.”
then to “The Filling Station” with Mary Kinzie’s charge in mind, one must acknowledge, as Bromwich does, the gender of the first-person narrator. But to make this assumption that the narrator is a woman, and nothing in the poem argues against that assumption, one also must entertain the gendered vision on which the poem depends. The speaker is a woman, possibly Bishop herself, and given that premise, one must also imagine the psychological complexity of gender relations that would pertain to the scene of the poem. After all, here is a decidedly middle-class woman in a working class, all-male environment. One knows what her class position must be from her language and from what she chooses to describe. Similarly, one knows that a man and his sons, as she tells us, run this filling station. They are decidedly working-class men who earn their money through hard work and sweat.
Given this scene, this situation, one can only find a class bias and general attitude of condescension by refusing to engage the psychological drama of a respectable woman alone in an entirely male, even aggressively male and slightly disreputable, potentially frightening, place. In short, there really is not much of a class war in this poem if one uncovers and works through the poem’s set of complex relations between men and women. With regard to gender relations, this poem holds a great deal of interest.
Turning to the specific gender issues, then, one finds that the title alone begins to make the subtle case for gender as a primary condition of experience. The title, “Filling Station,” refers not just to this gas station but also to the larger concept “Station” from the Christian story of the journey of Jesus and the stations of the cross. In poetry, every word harkens back to its larger cultural, social, and literary history. In a poem, the word “station,” when it appears in the story of a journey refers back to that Christian use of the term. And, from that perspective, this poem describes one woman’s station on her long journey through the world.
One can make this case particularly strong when one considers that this poem appeared in the book, Questions of Travel (1965), a book of poems whose major subject is travel and whose principle metaphor is the concept of the journey. Furthermore, “Filling Station” appears in the part of the book titled “Elsewhere,” as if to suggest that the moment captured in this poem is but one station of many.
Once the station metaphor is achieved, the full impact of the title can be realized. For in the poem itself Bishop is the one who fills up the site. Rather than depict a simple anecdote where a woman stops to get gas in her car, this poem reverses the logic. Here, a woman stops at a station on her long journey of life. This station is a male zone in a wilderness of neutrality. In the midst of this male environment, Bishop fills up the station with decidedly feminine qualities. Her vision makes of this potentially alienating place a pleasant, feminine atmosphere. What ought to be a trial, a test of her feminine integrity, a typical “station of the cross” in a Christian sense becomes, instead, a site for her particularly powerful transformative power. She makes the strange and alienating place seem, if only for a moment, a little bit more like home when she fills it with domestic, feminine meaning. Such transformations are the work of all great poets.
Turning from the title to the first two stanzas, one sees that the poem begins in dirt. The word “dirty” is repeated three times in two stanzas. Also, it is placed in such a way that every time it is used it forms the final pause at the end of a line and of a sentence. Dirt, in other words, pervades this place, and the reader is forced to notice it.
But what is the speaker’s attitude toward dirt? Here, the tone of this poem is particularly tricky. Every good poet knows to use exclamation marks rarely, if at all. This is because they often have the effect of cheapening, even deadening the emphasis one wants them to have. Nonetheless, the first line of the poem uses just such a mark: “Oh, but it is dirty!” How is one to read this? In a tone of horror? Disgust? Given the rest of the poem, one would have to conclude that it is to be read only as mock horror, pretend disgust. A playful, even possibly sarcastic means of noting the obvious and saying, in effect, “well, what did you expect?” A tone of mock horror indicates that Bishop is not really a snob here. Instead, she is far more willing than many might suppose to engage a place so terribly different from her more obviously feminine, clean world.
From the first stanza, she stands for domestic life, cleanliness: traditionally feminine attributes. This place, by contrast, through its dirt, stands for the traditionally masculine attributes of mechanical devices, technology, industry: dirt, sweat, and work. After all, it is a gas station! To make the point Bishop adds:
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
The color scheme, the texture, the very feel of the dirt is now made even more tangible as a thick coat of oil. But here, too, disgust and horror are not the right tone. Rather one should instead here have that same mocking willingness to say, with a little shrug, “oh well, here I am, how exciting.” Bishop concludes: “Be careful with that match!” This use of another exclamation mark only five lines after the first indicates the sort of light, playful detachment she means to convey with her tone.
Given that the scene is utterly alien to a woman like this speaker, one must realize that the playful tone is a brave means of trying to accommodate and cope with the strange. Think of all the ways a woman alone might describe the three men of this place. Of all those ways the least expected and most obviously challenging is to call them “father” and “sons.” By commenting on their domestic relationship she not only identifies them in her domestic terms, but she also removes them from the working-class context in which they actually exist. Not workers come to service her car and threaten her sense of decorum and security, but rather a father and his sons.
His sons, the speaker tells us, are “quick and saucy.” One can only imagine what specific words, leers, and other typically aggressive gestures gave rise to such descriptions. But rather than focus on what they say and how they behave, the speaker rewrites the boys out of their hyper-masculinity and into a domestic scene. In a parenthesis, Bishop says: “(it’s a family filling station).”
By this point in the poem, it is evident that Bishop is in supreme control of the meaning and implication of her punctuation. Her exclamation marks created a mock-heroic tone, and now her parenthesis deflate the cocky aggression of the “saucy” boys. The final line of the third stanza must, therefore, be read as a woman’s defensive reaction to the pretense of the men: if they are fathers and sons, if this is a family, then, there must also be, somewhere, a woman. And, if there is a woman, this is not a male zone at all: the three men, from a domestic perspective, exhibit a male pretense, not some genuine male animalistic instinct.
Therefore, in the final line of the stanza, when Bishop declares that “all” is “quite thoroughly dirty” she is saying, implicitly, that these men, as a family, have failed even the most minimal task of creating a healthy environment for themselves. This is not a workspace for men, it is a home for a family. Well, Bishop knows all about homes. And, having declared this place a home she has now given herself the right to judge it on her terms. She can say in no uncertain terms that this home is a mess!
To Bishop’s credit the plot of the poem ends with this judgement, just after the third stanza. What follows, however, complicates this plot in fascinating ways. Specifically, Bishop adds four stanzas, each of which depends on a question or series of questions raised by the issue she charted in the first three stanzas. To summarize, in the first three stanzas, Bishop transformed the gas station workspace into a home and, as a home, a familiar place to her, she felt she was able to deal with it, judge it, even be superior to it. While the boys appear to be a threat to her with their “raciness” she can claim a new superiority by denying their premise. If this station is a home, they cannot be men in a male-zone competing for a woman in a Darwinian sexual struggle. Transformed into a domestic scene, they are just a family whose home she can judge as inadequate, filthy.
The final four stanzas of the poem question every aspect of this transformation. By the end of the third stanza, Bishop wonders if it is even true that this is a home? “Do they live in the station?” She asks. And rather than answer her question she offers only a series of speculations based on close observation. She offers abundant detail. Many readers might conclude that these details prove her point, this is a home just as she thought. But stanza five returns to the same question all over again. It must be a home, she decides, for if it is just another male workplace then:
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
In other words, the details seem to be convincing but they do not finally convince Bishop. The real issue hiding behind these details is gender, and stanza five reveals gender’s importance. According to Bishop, the typical social roles of men and women in the United States suggest that no man, certainly no man in a gas station, would do anything associated with a feminine role. She all but asks, why on earth three men would domesticate their workplace? Why would such rolicking, leering, aggressively male mechanics even consider “plants,” “taborets,” and, of all things, a “doily?” What she means to say here is that only a woman could possibly have done these things, added these details. And, if there is a woman, then this must be, by definition, a home.
In this stanza, Bishop returns to her light humor, too. Certainly, the “doily” line is funny. When she says, “why, oh why” the exasperation is out of proportion to the problem. But the humor itself speaks to the larger problem of a feminine presence. For, finally, the speaker wants to know if she is the one making this place a home. She wonders if she is the one misinterpreting the facts, the details. She wonders if it really is a place where women already exist.
The poem’s final stanza makes another attempt to answer the gender-roll questions of the poem. But now these questions are filled, as is this station, with ambiguity, complexity, and an abundance of meaning.
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
What Bishop sees cannot be denied. Therefore, somebody, as she says, must have put these typically feminine things there. Does it have to be a woman? Could the men be doing such womanly things themselves?
The joke Bishop makes about oiling the plant refers to the fact that the place is a mess: it is covered in oil. But this also assumes that perhaps the men are responsible for whatever domestic touches are to be found. Even the name of the gas station is made to have a gentle, whispering, pleasing, domestic, and feminine quality, “Esso.” (This name in fact once stood for Eastern Standard Oil. It tells the reader that this poem is probably taking place in Bishop’s favorite New England landscape.) Be that as it may, the oil cans with the gas station’s name on them even domesticate the wild “high-strung” cars that are nervously speeding past. This detail means that if even an oil can will soothe a car, if even a filling station like this can have doilies and the like, then the last line might well be true. Somebody really might love us all. There may be a benevolent spirit, a God, on this journey, even here in this strange station. For what is love but concern and compassion for one’s own space? Maybe, the poem implies, it is Bishop herself who makes the silly gender assumption that no man would domesticate his own space.
Source: Jonathan N. Barron, Critical Essay on “Filling Station,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Smith is a writer and editor. In this essay, she discusses how Bishop’s poem reveals the poet’s inner struggle of rejection versus acceptance of others, and how she ultimately chooses acceptance.
In “Filling Station” the speaker of the poem describes a gas station whose most prominent outward quality is filth: “Oh, but it is dirty!” she declares in the first line. The reader gains a snapshot view of what the speaker sees: “—this little filling station, / oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency.” The speaker’s derogatory tone turns wry in the final line of the stanza: “Be careful with that match!” she cries, implying that if a match is lit anywhere near the oil-soaked station, the entire place is likely to blow up.
The speaker’s distaste likewise extends toward the family that runs the station. “Father wears a dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit / that cuts him under the arms,” she notes. The deliberate choice of the phrase “monkey suit” to describe the man’s clothing has the effect of belittling him. The speaker also notes that “several quick and saucy / and greasy sons assist him.” The sons, too, seem less than human. Numerous, nameless, and apparently fresh, they too resemble monkeys. Again, the speaker punctuates her horror with a smirk, noting parenthetically that “(it’s a family filling station).” Her disdain has decidedly turned into arrogance,
“These small revelations culminate in the final line of the poem: ‘Somebody loves us all.’ Even in light of the previous lines reflecting the speaker’s change of heart, this statement comes as a shock. It is as if the speaker has flung her arms open wide, forgiven everything that she previously viewed with derision, and come to a place of balance and acceptance.”
and she caps off the stanza by citing again that the scene is “all quite thoroughly dirty.”
“Do they live in the station?” the speaker wonders of the family. She then describes the few items of adornment that grace the station. “It has a cement porch / behind the pumps, and on it / a set of crushed and grease; / impregnated wickerwork; / on the wicker sofa / a dirty dog, quite comfy.” Like the father and sons who work the station, the dog is oblivious to the filth and disarray that surround him. However, unlike her attitude toward the human residents, the speaker’s attitude toward the dog carries a slight feeling of affection. She calls him “comfy,” perhaps charmed that the dog seems perfectly happy despite everything.
In the following stanza the speaker continues to survey the scene, noting the available reading material: “Some comic books provide / the only note of color— / of certain color.” First, her focus on comic books carries an implicit criticism: remember, the speaker is conveying her thoughts through poetry; comic books may seem repellent and low-class to her. The fact that the comics provide the only “certain color” is probably even more depressing to her, for comics are usually more garish-looking than pleasing to the eye. One can imagine that they too are probably stained with oil.
The additional efforts to gentrify the filling station meet with the speaker’s disapproval: the comic books “lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret (part of the set).” The mention of a “set” echoes an exclamation that would normally be heard at an upper-class bridal shower. In this context, however, the overall effect of the speaker’s comment is sarcastic. What’s more, even the flowering plants are offensive to the speaker; beside the stool she notices a “hirsute begonia.” As the word “hirsute” normally refers to individuals who are extremely (and unattractively) hairy, the reader may presume that the begonia is also unattractive, wild, and untrimmed.
The scene is presented as a collage of dirty, untamed, and garish elements, and their collective effect is overwhelming and seemingly senseless to the speaker. Finally she demands, “Why the extraneous plant?” / “Why the taboret?” / “Why, oh why, the doily?” In other words, why even try to add touches of beauty and class to such a clearly dismal place?
Yet, as the speaker’s attention focuses on the doily, her rhetorical, somewhat prudish outrage pulls back. She looks at the doily closely, and the reader gets a detailed description of the piece, “Embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites, I think, / and heavy with gray crochet.” This is the first time the speaker has afforded any item more than a brief mention. There is clearly something about the detail of the doily that affects the speaker.
The speaker’s recognition of the doily and her attempts to recall the name of a stitch from her memory lead the reader to think that the speaker is reminded of a past episode in her own life. She may have been taught how to crochet by her mother or a beloved aunt, for example. This suddenly infuses the poem with a feeling of wistfulness that had been completely absent beforehand.
Just as suddenly as the doily becomes the speaker’s focus of attention, the speaker’s contempt gives way to reconciliation. “Somebody embroidered the doily,” she recognizes. Even in this place of filth and disarray, a person took the time to make something beautiful. “Somebody waters the plant,” she says; and in a bemused tone she adds, “or oils it, maybe.” She is slowly gaining humor and perspective on a scene that horrified her just moments ago.
Ultimately, she notes that some details of the filling station even have a kind of order to them: “Somebody / arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO / to high-strung automobiles.” (“ESSO” is the name of the company that owns the station. Although it is defunct now, its name was very recognizable in the past, as one would recognize Exxon or Shell today.) The repetition of the “SO—SO—SO” of ESSO is a melodic echo, perhaps mirroring the echoes that have been triggered in the speaker’s memory.
These small revelations culminate in the final line of the poem: “Somebody loves us all.” Even in light of the previous lines reflecting the speaker’s change of heart, this statement comes as a shock. It is as if the speaker has flung her arms open wide, forgiven everything that she previously viewed with derision, and come to a place of balance and acceptance.
This conclusion of the poem represents a kind of triumph. Foremost, it is a triumph of love within the speaker’s own heart. It takes a great deal of energy to find beauty amid ruins, or redemption amid poverty. At first the speaker chooses to scorn everything that is unpleasant to her. However, once she finds an image that is meaningful for her—in this case, the doily—her own past seems to unlock. Most likely reminded of family relationships she had in the past, she is able to look at the family running the filling station through more sympathetic eyes. In the end, she is able to appreciate how even a dismal filling station can have a degree of nobility.
The sense of triumph is even more acute when the poem is considered in the context of the volume of work in which it appears. Bishop’s Questions of Travel (1965) is divided into two parts— “Brazil” and “Elsewhere”—with “Filling Station” appearing in the “Elsewhere” section. One of the essential elements of travel writing, or in this case, travel poetry, is the consideration of habits and customs that are unfamiliar. Because they are so different, these habits and customs have an especially powerful ability to disgust, delight, and shock. In her deliberate and undoubtedly hierarchical division of the book (Brazil is preeminent; everything else is just “elsewhere”) the poet knows what delights her and what decidedly does not. While an armadillo in Brazil may enchant her, do the proprietors of a dirty filling station? One can look back upon the speaker’s initial, horrified tone of voice as carrying perhaps a touch of self-teasing. This underlying feeling comes out in full bloom at the end of the poem, as the poet muses to herself over oiling the plant.
The overall structure of the volume Questions of Travel has yet another implication. Some of the poems in the “Elsewhere” section are considerations of places from the poet’s past, particularly her childhood, such as in “First Death in Nova Scotia.” (In later volumes the poet can even imagine herself as a child and reevaluate her perceptions of adults. Of course, in the case of one of her most famous poems, “In the Waiting Room,” the adult poet agrees with her seven-year-old self, affirming that her Aunt Consuelo was indeed a “foolish, timid woman.” But throughout her work the poet does offer relentless examinations of experiences, despite their being positive or negative.)
In the case of “Filling Station” one may imagine the station as a place from the poet’s youth, which she is now revisiting as an adult. It is not uncommon for people to harbor contempt for the place in which they were raised. If this is the case in “Filling Station,” the poet is able to come to terms with her distaste for the undereducated and most likely economically depressed, find a source of connection, and come to a more mature understanding of people’s complex lives.
“Filling Station” presents a picture that is deceptively simple, yet speaks of the poet’s inner conflicts. In this case, humor and acceptance prevail over disgust and distancing. With an open heart the poet chooses love.
Source: Erica Smith, Critical Essay on “Filling Station,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Witcover’s fiction and critical essays appear regularly in magazines and online. In the following essay, he looks at Bishop’s subtle use of phrasing, voice, and meter.
“Filling Station,” like so many of the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, creeps up on readers. At its best, as here, Bishop’s language is so smooth, assured, and precise—one might even go so far as to call it achingly ordinary in places—that her poetic effects percolate below the reader’s consciousness until the instant when, with a carefully prepared but still surprising word or line, Bishop detonates her depth charge. Like another poet of deceptively polished surfaces, Robert Frost, Bishop in such poems as “Filling Station” and “At the Fishhouses” combines an extraordinary eye for detail and description with an ear alert to the most subtle nuances of phrasing, voice, and meter. Joined to these abundant gifts is a sly and subversive wit, both playful and ironic, and above all a penetrating yet compassionate
“Just as the speaker of the poem both trembles and takes solace at evidence of Bishop’s organizing presence outside the poem, so, too, does Bishop tremble and take solace in the presence of something beyond the boundaries of her perceptions.”
intellect driven not only to accurately record what it sees but to question the implications of what is seen—and what is not seen. An important consideration here is that the category of things not seen includes ones that do not exist or ones that human beings lack the senses or instruments to perceive.
The tension between what is seen and not seen, what tangibly exists and what may or may not exist beyond the tangible, knowable, limited world of human perception and experience, is the engine at the heart of much, if not all, poetry. That tension is what elevates the assemblage of specific “dirty” and “oil-soaked” objects constituting the grubby reality of Bishop’s “family filling station” into something transcendent, even prayerful. But the poet does not forget for one instant the grime in which she is kneeling nor the central absence in herself, the world, or in both. Her prayer, her poem, like a child’s question about the afterlife, is an attempt, at once hopeful and despairing, to fill.
Critic Bonnie Costello, in an essay entitled “The Impersonal and the Interrogative in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” appearing in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, writes that “[F]or Bishop, questions are assertions. However open-endedly, they structure experience and self-awareness. Like compasses, they point to something absolute we can neither see nor get to; yet in their pointing, they show us where we are.” To this should be appended the corollary that for Bishop, answers are merely questions in disguise. Bishop never outgrew the love of questions and the instinctive recognition of, and contempt for, pat answers so characteristic of childhood (often annoyingly so!).
“Filling Station” appeared in Bishop’s 1965 collection, Questions of Travel, a book whose very title indicates as plainly as possible the centrality of questions and questioning in her poetry (and the centrality of travel as well, but that’s another essay). The poem can be read as a series of seemingly casual, sometimes quite charming and amusing observations that build to a climax of questions, each one apparently innocent, yet combining with the others to devastating effect.
The answers Bishop goes on to provide are, if anything, more devastating still, because upon closer examination they answer nothing and instead only raise the same unanswerable questions all over again, this time with a troubling universality that has been implicit in the poem from the first but never stated explicitly until its end, when the poem is turned inside out with a metaphysical flourish, and the reader gets taken along for the ride. There is a clear technical debt here to the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century written by poets such as John Donne and George Herbert; in fact, Herbert was not only a major influence on the young Elizabeth Bishop, but she retained a lifelong fondness for his verse. But while Bishop may have learned a measure of craft from Herbert, a wealthy English aristocrat who became a humble and devout country parson, his certainty of religious faith was foreign to her. In her book Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, critic Anne Colwell calls attention to the way in which Bishop’s poems “refuse to resolve into a decision, or even into one question, but instead gain power through force of opposition, acquire ambiguity and resonance through their ever-multiplying questions.”
The poem is set in a gas, or filling, station. The title is meant to be a pun, one that will become less obvious, however, and increasingly multifaceted and affecting, as the poem’s words slowly fill up the page, and its levels of meaning and ambiguity similarly filter into the minds of attentive readers. Bishop cannot help but write poems that are in some way about the process of writing and reading poetry; that is certainly the case here. Every poem is a kind of filling station at which readers pull in to refuel their souls: sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But such simplified explanations really illuminate very little of interest; it should be remembered that the “self-referentiality” of Bishop’s poetry is itself complicated and ambiguous and always placed in the service of the poem’s larger purpose. Let’s watch the slow and permeating and oh-so-skillfully orchestrated seep of that purpose through the six stanzas of “Filling Station.”
To begin with, it’s dirty. “Oh, but it is dirty!” the speaker of the first line exclaims. Who is this speaker? Is it Elizabeth Bishop? Yes and no. The voice of the speaker is the voice Bishop has chosen to employ in addressing her readers. Perhaps, it’s best just to say that the speaker is a poet like Bishop, and that what one is reading is a record, a transcription, of the creative processes of the poet as a poem is being born in, well, wherever it is that poems are born! That poem is probably not “Filling Station,” however. Why not? Quite simply, because “Filling Station” is Bishop’s poem, not the speaker’s: it is a finished work of art whose subject, on one level, is the germination, rather than the cultivation and completion, of a poem. That may seem like a rather fine, even empty, distinction, but such distinctions are extremely important in poetry, especially in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
The speaker is struck by the dirtiness of the filling station. In the first three stanzas, the word “dirty” appears four times. The word “oil” appears three times in those same stanzas, and “greasy” (or a variation thereof) appears twice. Together these words and images—the “oil-soaked,” “oil-permeated,” “dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit” worn by Father, the “set of crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork,” and the “dirty dog” lying “quite comfy”—contribute to the sense of being somewhere, as “quite thoroughly dirty.” Far from being repelled by all this dirt and grime, however, the speaker seems to revel in it, even cracking a playfully teasing joke—“Be careful with that match!”— as if the station is so drenched in oil that the slightest spark might set off a conflagration. This is no fastidious clean freak, or repressed control freak, for that matter. The speaker delights in the physicality of all the surrounding filth, though to be sure there’s superiority in her interest, a sense of slumming among less civilized humans, if not members of another, lesser species altogether.
In the first half of the poem—that is, in the first three stanzas—the repetitiveness of the language, the lulling rhythm of one- and two-syllable words, especially adjectives, with their simple stresses—“little filling station,” “black translucency,” “greasy sons,” “cement porch”— and the masterful use of alliteration, most notably in the spreading ooze of “s” sounds throughout the second stanza in a remarkably subtle case of poetic foreshadowing, all work to convey the oiliness of the place as well as the stimulating effects of that dirt and oiliness on the poet’s creative faculties. She is like a child playing with mud pies. Note also the use of a language almost debased in its generality, a quality normally the enemy of vivid poetry— “several . . . sons,” “quite thoroughly dirty,” “quite comfy.” Only a poet in complete command of her talents can take such bland language and make it sing. Here it’s the very ability to make poetry out of the most seemingly unpoetic fodder of everyday language that is important to Bishop’s developing theme.
In the first two stanzas, the speaker is both describing the filling station for the reader and, indirectly, revealing things about herself (her sense of humor, for example, as well as her sense of social superiority). She informs the reader of certain facts that she has observed or that she somehow knows. How does she know the assistants are all the sons of the father? How does she know it is a “family filling station?” Readers must take her word for it. Either she has privileged information or she is putting forward as facts conjectures based on observation. She could easily keep this up for the whole poem (in which case it would be a very different poem), but she does not. Suddenly, out of the blue, at the beginning of the third stanza, the speaker poses her first question: “Do they live in the station?” What could be more casual and innocuous? It seems more a rhetorical than an actual question, for the following lines provide ample evidence of domesticity, with the “cement porch,” the “grease- / impregnated wickerwork,” and the “dirty dog, quite comfy.”
But something has changed nonetheless. This change, from a kind of passive reporting to a more active questioning, from observer to participant, will become more pronounced over the final half of the poem, that is, in the concluding three stanzas. The fourth stanza nearly overwhelms the reader with an avalanche of new material qualitatively different from what has gone before. Gone are the repetitions of words like “dirty” and “oil” so integral to the structure of the first three stanzas. Instead one finds “comic books” that provide “the only note of color.”
Prior to this, both the poem and the filling station have been colorless, with only an “over-all / black translucency.” Here a hint of color, “of certain color,” bleeds through the oily sheen. And then comes the wonderful, the amazing “big dim doily.” This takes the idea of color a step further, for now, in addition to the beauty and variation of color, the reader has something created: a handmade work of art, however humble. But what is truly a stroke of genius here is how ordinary and unobjectionable the presence of the doily seems in the scene. So there’s a doily, so what? Why shouldn’t there be a doily? In fact, the doily is derived from the two words most prevalent in the first three stanzas of the poem: “dirty” and “oil.” Rather than disappearing from the poem, what has actually happened to these words is something more mysterious and marvelous: Bishop has noted the occurrence and repetition of these words and artfully combined them. If the wickerwork is indeed impregnated with grease, this doily is its offspring! There is a subversive yet playful quality to this linguistic trick reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s ingenious word play in poems like “Jabberwocky,” as well as a touch of Vladimir Nabokov’s equally ingenious, if less innocent, literary puzzles.
The following lines show the doily “draping a taboret / (part of the set), beside / a big hirsute begonia.” The word “taboret” has a variety of meanings. Here, because of the parenthetical “(part of the set),” which refers back to the wickerwork, readers can probably assume that the intended meaning is a piece of furniture: specifically, to quote from Webster’s New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, “a stool; a seat without a back or arms.” It is possible that Bishop intends a different meaning, however. Webster’s lists three alternative definitions, each contextually plausible, though perhaps not equally so: “an embroidery frame,” “a low ornamental stand,” and “a small tabor,” or drum. It is hard to know whether Bishop, in composing her poem, intentionally introduced this bit of ambiguity. Again, that is another essay! Here it is simply noted that it is ambiguous and move on to something less so: the “big hirsute begonia.” The adjective “big” links this plant back to the doily, while the word “hirsute,” meaning hairy, links the reader further back in both sound and sense to the “monkey suit” worn by Father. Further, note that the begonia is a living thing, a plant, and, what’s more, a colorful plant. But what do all these things mean?
The speaker asks the same question in the fifth stanza: “Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?” Beneath the speaker’s tone of baffled amusement at such an incomprehensible sense of decor, there is real panic in these questions, tumbling out one after the other. The speaker bravely maintains her characteristic sense of humor and habitual attention to detail in spite of it, describing in a long parenthetical exactly how the doily is embroidered. Yet such a description does not really answer the question of why. These questions are existential. The arbitrariness of the objects themselves, the inexplicability of their presence here (why this and not something, anything else or, for that matter, why not nothing at all) shatters the speaker’s rather smug belief that she can reflect in her art an underlying order, or impose order through her art. And not only that, a belief that she has a right to do so based upon her status as someone above and beyond the reality she is describing.
It is the doily that vexes the speaker above all. “Why, oh why, the doily?” Her poet’s ear has heard and identified the derivation of “doily” from “dirty” and “oily,” but her conscious mind has not registered it. It is therefore profoundly disturbing, but in a way she can’t quite put a finger on, even though it has put its finger on her, so to speak. Or, put another way, Elizabeth Bishop has reached into her own poem to send a message to the speaker of that poem, a message the speaker cannot or does not register directly but which nevertheless impinges deeply upon her. But what is that message?
In the final stanza, the speaker attempts to find it or impose it. It is debatable how successful this attempt turns out to be, but it is a brave attempt and a sincere one. The speaker takes solace at first in the idea that “[s]omebody embroidered the doily. / Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe. Somebody / arranges the rows of cans . . .” Who is this mysterious somebody?
It is surely no accident that the structure of these stanzas suggests the Catechism, the question-and-answer methodology by which the Catholic Church communicates its precepts to young people and converts. The speaker tells herself, tries to convince herself, rather, that things are not random or haphazard, that there is order, beneficent order, in the world. “Somebody loves us all,” she concludes in the last line of the poem, including herself for the first time in the world she is describing. But who is this somebody? Is it God? Is it, perhaps, the missing mother whose presence the reader can only infer in the “family filling station” from the evidence of artful arrangement, however idiosyncratic? To know that when Bishop was five years old, her mother was permanently committed to a mental institution and was ever after absent from her daughter’s life surely adds something to one’s appreciation of this stanza, but such purely biographical detail, while of indisputable interest, is of limited value in explicating a work of art, which, if successful, is always more than the sum of its parts.
The key image of the final stanza occurs in the rows of ESSO (for the Eastern States Standard Oil Company, now Exxon Corporation) cans that “softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO / to high-strung automobiles.” It is helpful, but not indispensable to know, that the “SO—SO—SO” was meant by Bishop to suggest the sounds made to soothe horses. The soothing aspect is clear from the context. But working against this soothing by “somebody”—and note the return of the “s” sounds from the second stanza—is the idea that “SO—SO—SO” can be read as a stammer or stutter as well, as if the word “somebody” is describing a thing so frightening that it simply cannot come out. The speaker of the poem feels legitimately soothed by the idea that there is somebody watching over her. But, the experience of being touched by that somebody, which she has perceived only indirectly, in the word “doily,” and now in the arrangement of the oil cans, has been far from soothing. It has been terrifying, in fact, launching a series of questions that have no single, authoritative answer. The speaker has been filled indeed, but there is torment as well as satisfaction in the filling. The reader cannot help but think of certain Old Testament prophets who discovered divine contact to be a decidedly double-edged sword.
So, too, Bishop suggests, is poetry when properly written and read: that is, with an alertness to an inexplicable organizing force or principle able to reach into one’s life, one’s mind, from one knows not where, to arrange, rearrange, or disarrange everything in an instant for reasons one cannot discern, if indeed they even exist. Just as the speaker of the poem both trembles and takes solace at evidence of Bishop’s organizing presence outside the poem, so, too, does Bishop tremble and take solace in the presence of something beyond the boundaries of her perceptions. “Somebody loves us all,” yes, but how do they love us? As lovers love each other? As a parent loves a child? As a child loves a toy? Or with a love entirely unimaginable? The conflicted and paradoxical embrace of an unknown and unknowable love is characteristic of every art form, especially the dirtiest, most oil-permeated and fertile art of all, life.
Source: Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on “Filling Station,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Sarah Madsen Hardy
Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literature and is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the unconventional idea of home put forth in Bishop’s poem.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” is a poem about a filthy gas station, inspired by some place the poet presumably stopped to refuel her car in the course of her many travels. The poem’s speaker is a traveler who finds nothing less than universal love—evidence that “somebody loves us all”—in a row of carefully arranged oil cans at the filling station. Thus the word “filling” in the title comes to stand for much more than filling the gas tank up at the pump. Rather, the filling station is a place of emotional replenishment and fulfillment. Through her description, Bishop transforms the mundane experience of stopping for gas into one that evokes the simple and yet profound comfort of home found in an unexpected place. This essay will explore how Bishop uses her position of traveler to redefine the most fundamental concepts of home.
“Filling Station” first appeared in Questions of Travel, a 1965 collection that focused largely on Bishop’s experiences traveling in Brazil. In the collection’s title poem, Bishop poses a series of questions, a self-interrogation about her motivations for wandering the world.
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
She concludes the poem by juxtaposing these questions of travel with a question about travel’s opposite, staying home: “Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?” By adding the phrase “wherever that may be?” Bishop opens up the issue of exactly what home means and where one can find it.
In a number of poems in Questions of Travel, Bishop seeks to answer a final question—what is home anyway? A close reading of the poems reveals that being away from her own home offered Bishop a release from conventional ideas of domesticity that were largely oppressive of women. Bishop rejects these conventional ideas in favor of freer, more open and hopeful ones. This is a form
“Just as she breaks down other dichotomies fundamental to the idea of home, she breaks down that between ‘us’ and ‘them’— the traditional family and the strange, diverse people who populate the wide world.”
of seeing anew—“seeing the sun the other way around”—that travel allows.
As one might guess, Bishop’s relationship with her own first home was a troubled one. Her autobiographical story, In the Village, offers a glimpse into this poet’s childhood, spent with a widowed and mentally ill mother. It also expresses a deep ambivalence about the forever-lost Nova Scotia home from which she was taken at age six, when her mother was institutionalized. Bishop was then taken to Worcester, Massachusetts, to be raised by her grandparents. She spent most of her adult life traveling and through her writing about strange and foreign places, she sought to find the home that she had lost. (“I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went,” she writes in “One Art,” a poem about the “art of losing.”)
Home is not just something that Bishop has loved and lost, however. Her relationship with the idea of home is further complicated by the fact that she was such a quietly unconventional woman. Bishop was an independent, intellectual lesbian in an era of social conservatism, when the idea of home was inextricably tied to a woman’s role as wife and mother. Her refusal of these roles is evident in her depiction of the home presented in “Filling Station” and other poems. Furthermore, there is a long tradition amongst American women poets of writing sentimental poetry about the pleasures of hearth and home; the literary establishment has not taken that poetry seriously. Bishop writes unsentimentally and critically about the concepts held dear in this earlier tradition. The redefined concept of home Bishop generates in her poetry challenges both literary and social conventions.
One of the most fundamental, commonly held ideas of home is that it is what separates indoors from outdoors, and, by extension, culture from nature, and humans from animals. Against this common conception, Bishop often seeks instead to blur the distinction between indoors and out. In her poem, “Squatter’s Children,” which also appears in Questions of Travel, she envisions a home in the torrents of rain that engulf two dirt-poor children who refuse to answer their mother’s call to come in out of the storm. The transcendent grandeur of the “rooms of falling rain” contrasts with their desolate human environment. The home provided by nature offers them rights and agency, despite their lowly status as “squatters,” people who do not own or rent their own homes: “wet and beguiled, you stand among / the mansions you may choose.” In “Song for the Rainy Season,” she describes a house that merges with its environment.
Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog . . .
beneath the magnetic rock . . .
owls, and the lint of waterfalls cling.
She celebrates the moist natural life forms that invade this house in the rainy season as a testament to its loving inclusiveness.
House, open house . . .
to the membership of silver fish, mouse,
big moths; with a wall
for the mildew’s ignorant map.
Closely associated with the distinction between indoors and outdoors is that between cleanliness and dirt. Conventionally, home is idealized as a place of cleanliness, a shelter where one can leave the mess of the outside world behind, both literally and figuratively. However, Bishop instead associates the particular loving and welcoming quality of home with being dirty.
In “Song for the Rainy Season,” she writes of a house “darkened and tarnished / by the warm touch / of the warm breath / maculate, cherished.” In “Filling Station,” she makes this point even more emphatically. “Oh, but it is dirty!” the poem begins. Throughout this poem Bishop stresses the filth of the place: “oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency.” The proprietor, referred to as “Father,” “wears a dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit,” and the sons are “greasy.”
While the speaker professes a conventional feeling of disturbance at this mess, the imagery of the poem suggests that the oil is the medium that binds the scene’s disparate elements into a loving harmony. The “dirty dog” is “quite comfy” on a wicker sofa—a homey term for a domestic image of mixing and mingling. And the wicker itself is “impregnated” with grease. The filling station is not a place of separation, but of happy and productive union between elements conventionally best thought kept separate.
In “Squatter’s Children” and “Song for the Rainy Season,” Bishop blurs the distinction between a home and the outdoors, but in “Filling Station” she makes the even more unusual move of blurring the distinction between a home and place of commerce. Commerce, with its goal of making money, is often conceived of as “dirty” and heartless. It is also traditionally considered a man’s realm. This was especially true in the early 1960s when Bishop wrote the poems in Questions of Travel. It was the woman’s job to create a home as a place of comfort and refuge for her man at the end of a working day. The filling station is a refuge of sorts, but who has created it? A father and his sons run the station, which seems, on the surface, to be a place of business. “Do they live at the station?” the speaker wonders, noting domestic touches such as a doily draped on a taboret and a begonia. This seems like something that a woman might do.
Perhaps Bishop sees here, through the imagined woman’s physical absence, the specter of her own lost mother. But Bishop is careful to leave the question open as to whether this family station includes a mother. While a home is conventionally a woman’s realm (and she is the one responsible for keeping it clean), in “Filling Station” an explicitly masculine space is imbued with a loving and beautifying touch that may or may not be that of a woman. “Somebody embroidered the doily. / Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe. Somebody / arranges the rows of cans . . .” Her repetition of the gender-neutral word “somebody” emphasizes the prospect of release from the traditional idea of women’s domestic role. It is possible that the father and sons imbued the place with its atmosphere of nourishing, nurturing dirtiness— and, for Bishop, this is a liberating possibility.
Indeed, as Bishop blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, nature and culture, commerce and home, she also blurs that between masculine and feminine. In “Filling Station,” she celebrates traditionally feminine qualities—the loving, supportive, and aesthetic touch—in a context that completely defies traditional notions of femininity—a filthy gas station. What she emphasizes is the warm touch itself, not the gender of the person creating it. This touch messily blurs and connects, like the oil that is everywhere. In the poem she envisions the filling station as a kind of home that is free of roles that constrict behavior along the lines of gender, but where the role usually occupied by wife and mother, that of loving nurturer, is still preserved and valued.
“Filling Station” shares with “Squatter’s Children” and “Song for the Rainy Season” the value of openness. Instead of portraying homes where people are safely closed in from the world, Bishop imagines homes where the world comes in and is embraced. This is how the nurturing love suggested by the embroidered marguerites on the dingy doily and the cans lined up to say “ESSO—SO—SO— SO” come to transcend the bounds of the family that runs the filling station and touch the heart of a random traveler stopping to buy gas.
Bishop sees these nurturing touches as evidence not that someone loves her family, but that “somebody loves us all.” Just as she breaks down other dichotomies fundamental to the idea of home, she breaks down that between “us” and “them”— the traditional family and the strange, diverse people who populate the wide world. The fact that a traveler can happen upon a new kind of home at a filling station is reason enough not to just stay home—wherever that may be.
Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, Critical Essay on “Filling Station,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Bishop, Elizabeth, Questions of Travel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.
Bromwich, David, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Dream Houses,” in Raritan, Vol. 4, Summer 1984, pp. 77–94.
Carruth, Gorton, What Happened When: A Chronology of Life and Events in America, revised ed., Harper Collins, 1996.
Colwell, Anne, Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, The University of Alabama Press, 1997, p. 5.
Costello, Bonnie, “The Impersonal and the Interrogative in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, The University of Michigan Press, 1983, pp. 109–32.
Doreski, C. K., Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Franklin, Sharon, Artisans Around the World: Mexico and Central America, Steck-Vaughan Co., 2000.
Mann, Charles Edward, “Elizabeth Bishop and Revision: A Spiritual Act,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, March–April 1996, pp. 43–50.
Millier, Brett C., “Elizabeth Bishop,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169: American Poets Since World War II, 5th Series, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 35–53.
———, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, University of California Press, 1993.
Moss, Howard, “The Canada–Brazil Connection,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter 1977, pp.29–33.
Parker, Robert Dale, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Scott, Nathan A., Jr., “Elizabeth Bishop: Poet Without Myth,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 255–75.
Smith, William J., “The Hollins Critic,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism,http://www.galenet.com (February 1977).
Stanford, Donald. E., “The Harried Life of Elizabeth Bishop,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 161–63.
Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 2d ed., William Collins Publishers, Inc., 1980.
Bishop, Elizabeth, The Complete Poems, 1927–1979, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Not only are all of Bishop’s published poems reprinted in this collection, but also her uncollected work and translations of Portuguese, French, and Spanish poets. As in any “complete” volume, this one offers a chance to explore the writer’s development over a long period of time.
———, Exchanging Hats: Paintings, edited by William Benton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Besides poetry, the other art form that engaged Elizabeth Bishop was painting. Exchanging Hats is a slender volume of reproductions of Bishop water-colors and drawings, along with her comments concerning art. Bishop never studied painting formally, and her technique is somewhat childlike. Her subjects are often plants, the ordinary interiors of houses, and facades of buildings. The watercolor and ink painting she called “Merida from the Roof” appears as the cover illustration for The Complete Poems.
Giroux, Robert, ed., One Art: Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Bishop was a prolific letter writer. This collection of her letters constitutes a kind of biography in itself, revealing much about the poet through her relationship with Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Lota Soares, and others. Editor Robert Giroux took the title from a late poem, “One Art,” which seemed to capture the theme of her personal life: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
Mann, Charles Edward, “Elizabeth Bishop and Revision: A Spiritual Act,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, March–April 1996, pp. 43–50.
Using papers and drafts of Bishop poems from a special collection, Charles Mann explores the poet’s habits of revision and the aesthetic it reveals. In the process, he discovers a spiritual dimension in Bishop’s work that bears some comparison to the poems of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Millier, Brett C., Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, University of California Press, 1993.
This biography of Bishop is highly readable. Without critical jargon, Brett Millier fulfills the task she sets about in the preface: “to explain as best I could, using the evidence I had, how Elizabeth Bishop’s poems got written and why they turned out the way they did.” Millier’s way of writing about Bishop’s difficult personal life is clear-eyed but compassionate, and she wisely does not interpret the poems solely through that lens.