The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” leads the reader in six exacting stanzas through a series of observable details to a revelation that is simultaneously gratifying and enigmatic: “Somebody loves us all.” Set in the small world of an ESSO gas station, now Exxon, the poem poses the largest of theological questions, here recontextualized in the domestic terms of home and family, a preoccupation in much of Bishop’s work. The speaker’s initial exclamation “Oh, but it is dirty!” accurately describes the station as the details, particularly in stanzas one and two, insist. The father and his several “greasy” sons run this “family” station and, like it, they are “all quite thoroughly dirty,” a state that also describes the family dog. In contrast with the family’s apparent contentment, the speaker declares such dirtiness is “disturbing” if not dangerous: “Be careful with that match!” she cautions, exaggerating a wholesale conflagration.

Stanza three begins “Do they live in the station?” thus initiating a line of inquiry that will eventually bridge the distance between the speaker and the family. In this transitional stanza the location shifts to the “cement porch// behind the pumps,” sufficiently domestic with its wicker sofa, dirty dog, comic books, doily, and begonia, but still open to public view. These details engage the reader’s powers of deduction about the family: The wickerwork is “crushed and grease-/...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An accomplished painter, Bishop produced the watercolors that grace the covers of several of her books. Description, a staple in these sister arts, is both her subject and her process in the first two-thirds of the poem. Even for a casual reader of “Filling Station,” Bishop’s language, once filtered through her writer’s eye, renders a verbal portrait so precise that the station emerges detail by detail as it is painted on the canvas of the reader’s imagination. The resulting poem-as-painting is a still life in a palette of blacks and grays with “the only note of color” provided by the comic books. Ultimately, however, the poem is animated by its shifting emotional trajectory as the speaker assesses and reassesses her stance, thus giving rise to a richly ambiguous tone that draws the reader into a world of meaning far more complex than this seemingly simple encounter with the ordinary suggests.

It is the poem’s perspective that permits the speaker’s detachment from the family she views from a safe vantage, as if sequestered behind a two-way mirror. The initial judgments and jokes at the family’s expense are sustained as late as stanza four when the taboret is referred to as “(part of the set).” Although the taboret is part of the wickerwork set, the term also suggests a facade occupied by characters rather than by real people who host an array of messy emotions. Given Bishop’s typically evocative word choice, associations quickly multiply: the father and his like-minded sons are themselves a set, garbed, perhaps, in...

(The entire section is 635 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.