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Elizabeth Bishop‘s “Filling Station” can be divided into two parts: the filling station and the hard work and the extraneous things that somebody placed in the station.
The poem’s imagery is masterful and opens the eyes of the reader to the hard, dirty work that is a part of the family owned filling station. Initially, the speaker [Bishop] tries to disassociate herself with this filthy, oily place. She almost sounds disgusted by the black transparency. She even warns someone to not light the match for fear of setting the place on fire. The tone of the speaker sounds initially harsh and disgusted by the oily atmosphere of the station.
In the second stanza, the poet describes her father; it is then that the reader associates the station with the speaker. This is her father and family that own the station. Her father apparently works hard. Sadly, his overalls are too little and rub places under his arms. It makes the reader wonder if the business is not profitable enough to buy the dad a new work suit. The brothers of the speaker are described as sassy but quick in their work. This is the family business which is important, but still it is extremely dirty.
The third stanza establishes that the family lives in the back of the station. On the porch in the back, there is a set of wicker chairs and in it sits the family dog. The narrator tries to take a neutral stance about the station, the family, and the dog. It is obvious that she is a part of this life, but as a girl, she does not enjoy the filth of the hard work.
The fourth stanza begins the second part of the poem. The tone changes to nostalgia and bit of melancholy thrown in. The speaker notices a table with a doily covering it. There are comic books on the table which is the only color in the room. Looking around the room, she notices a pink flower that seems neglected.
As the girl glances around the room, she notices other things that make it look like someone tried to make the place look nice and even homey. She begins to wonder why is there an unnecessary plant in a place like this and sitting on a nice table. Why is there a doily that has been embroidered and crocheted?
There is or was someone who made the doily, watered the plant, and arranged the oil cans so that they say in a soft voice…Esso-so-so-so…to the automobiles that need the oil. That someone because of this woman’s touch apparently loves this family.
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans…
Somebody loves us all.
The poem is probably biographical. When Elizabeth Bishop was five years old, her mother disappeared. Later, she learned that her mother was in an asylum for mental illness. Any child wants and needs her mother. This somebody in the poem may be the mother that his no longer around to take care of the plant or the room or the speaker. The absent mother left her “mark” on the filling station with her feminine touches. But most importantly, she loved her oily, dirty men and especially her daughter, who longs for her mother.
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