Themes and Meanings

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Famously reticent about her personal life both on and off the page, Bishop’s speaker in “Filling Station” watches the father, the sons, and the family dog, although she herself remains unseen. Voyeurism, however, is not only the province of the speaker. By the poem’s close the reader turns an eye on the speaker, who has revealed something of herself through her choice of recorded detail. In a rich, multilayered exploration of this theme, the watcher becomes the watched, and Bishop’s readers are encouraged to step outside the poem and consider whose eye is fixed on them.

Meticulously spatial and deductive, the poem repeatedly posits the order that is the poet’s process against the disorder in the messy, “oil-soaked” world of the family that, the speaker jokes, perhaps even oils the begonia instead of watering it. The theme of order allows this “little” filling station to function as a microcosm of the created world. An ordering hand, unseen but capable and beneficent, embroidered the doily, waters the plant, and arranges the rows of cans, as the poem notes, but also presumably nurtures-or fills—the father, the “saucy” sons, and even the family dog. Reasoning backwards from fact, there is evidence that the hand is a mother’s; however, she is identified only as a “somebody.” Her tasks, ordering and beautifying, are the tasks of creation ascribed to God, but Bishop was a confirmed atheist whose private theology would be unlikely to admit this interpretation. Clearly, though, the mother is a creative force the reader comes to know through her handiwork and who, in the penultimate line, directs her message outward to the larger world. The reader knows far more about this absent figure than about the father and sons, even though the latter appear in the poem.

The idea of a home and mother carries emotional resonance, particularly for Bishop, who at the age of five saw her mother for the last time. When Bishop was eight months old, her father died, and her mother suffered subsequent breakdowns that ultimately required her institutionalization. Perhaps the vagaries of her itinerant childhood prompted Bishop’s focus on her themes of travel and home. At the close of the title poem in Questions of Travel, in which “Filling Station” was first collected, the traveler queries, “Should we have stayed at home,// wherever that may be?” Bishop pondered this question in both her life and in her art.

In a letter to John Frederick Nims dated October 6, 1979, the day she died, Bishop addressed his suggestions about footnotes for “Filling Station” in an anthology he was editing. She replied that she would like her readers to know “SO-SO-SO” was at one time a phrase commonly used to soothe horses. With Bishop’s flair for the music of repetition, she insists on the “so,” embedding it in “softly,” “Esso,” and the oft-repeated “somebody,” as well as in the implicit “soothe” until its hypnotic echo also calms the reader, who likewise delights in the premise that “Somebody loves us all.” This epiphany fills the speaker and the reader, both of whom savor its consolation.

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