The Poem

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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-/ impregnated” because the father and sons lounge on it, probably to thumb through the comic books on the taboret. Furthermore, the dog is allowed to settle in on the sofa. This comfortable sloppiness stands in contrast with the station’s fussier details, such as the doily and the begonia, a fussiness that extends to the speaker, who wonders at these disparities but fails to reach a conclusion. The porch, neither inside nor out, neither wholly public nor wholly private, is where the poem’s description must end. The uninvited eye stalls and the speaker, either traveler or passerby, concludes her ruminations.

The poem’s final third begins by itemizing the speaker’s questions before indulging in one last irresistible fling with description, this time of the stitches used to embroider the doily. Although parenthetical, the pause is an important one because it permits both the speaker and the reader to call up the absent “somebody,” the wife and mother most likely, who is never directly mentioned. Her hand, however, is evident in the embroidered doily, the living plant, and in the neatly arranged cans of oil that whisper their reassuring “SO—SO—SO” to passing cars as well as to the speaker, who also must move on.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 635 words.)

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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 matching monkey suits, clarifying that for this speaker they are not individuals; they are, in fact, only partly human. About this her mind is set.

Even if the act of description in and of itself suggests a degree of receptivity, engagement begins when the speaker first turns to inquiry. Only a few lines later she chooses the colloquially intimate “comfy” to describe the dog, a term that would easily fit the mouths of the father and sons. This is one of several surprising tonal shifts from a speaker whose vocabulary is skewed toward formality in words such as “translucency,” “impregnated,” “hirsute,” and “extraneous.” When the questions proliferate in stanza five, they are clipped, breathy, an effect that quickens the pace as the poem prepares to rush toward its startling revelation. The three questions, a number that suggests the infinite, conclude with the exasperated “Why, oh why” that doubles back on itself to document the speaker’s involvement. Since questions elicit answers, the reader also ventures a speculation or two, thus earning admittance into the extended family.

Only in the parenthetical description of the doily, however, does the speaker draw close enough to her subject, both literally and psychically, to speculate about the doily’s patterns, its “daisy stitch” and “marguerites.” Her conjecture calls up the hand that worked the needle, a necessary step toward de-objectifying the family. This pivotal detail catapults the speaker into the revelation in the final stanza, again proving the power of observation. Finally, both speaker and reader join the family in the inclusive and accommodating pronoun in the poem’s last line, “Somebody loves us all.” Thus, the speaker’s journey toward engagement has also become the reader’s, both finding solace in the proof of a loving hand, previously unarticulated but always hoped for.

The three two-stanza sections in “Filling Station” use an array of devices characteristic of Bishop’s work, including multiple questions and exclamations, parenthetical expressions, self-corrections and qualifications, and repetitions, all of which shape a voice that is recognizably hers. These are among the techniques of the self in conversation with the self, a dialogue that convinces the speaker to abandon her own dark view and celebrate her integration into the drama of daily life.


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