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-/...

(The entire section is 435 words.)