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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Number 34: Elizabeth Bishop "Filling Station"

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

-- Elizabeth Bishop

Hap Notes: Elizabeth Bishop's (1911- 1979) early childhood was composed of shuttling from one relative to another because her father died when she was 18 months old and her mother was committed to a mental institution not long after that. (Remember what her idea of family must be as you read this poem carefully- just a suggestion.) Bishop was a shy woman and a very precise one.

Once again I am forced to take back something I said about Robert Lowell. It's true that he wrestled over every word in his poetry but he was not afraid, and in fact relished the process, of tinkering with published work. He was constantly revising and picking at a poem. Bishop, who is, I think one of America's best poets, published only 101 poems her whole life. She was a polisher and each of her poems sparkle like gems. Now, that's what I call deliberating over each word. By the way, Lowell and Bishop were very close friends.

First, let's talk about the poem, then we'll go back to Bishop. It is obvious that the speaker in the poem has stopped at this station. A cursory glance at an ESSO station as one passed would not be so detailed. (ESSO stations are the first gas stations created by Standard Oil -Ess and Oh, the phonetic pronunciation of the letters S (Standard) and O (Oil). Standard changed their name to Exxon in 1973. ESSO is still used in Canada, I think.) So this is an old Standard Oil franchise run by a family which seems to be populated by mostly men.

Those of us old enough to recall old family filling stations like this will recognize things in this poem that younger people don't see. This gas station sells no convenience items like milk or bread. It may not even have a pop machine. These gas stations were often attached to a small house. "Do they live in the station?" Maybe. America was a much dirtier (in the sense of grease, oil, dirt, litter and pollution) when this poem was written. I can smell the thick, heavy odor of the grease and oil of this place as the poet describes it.

The sons may be filling up the tank of the car with gas- there were no "self-service" pumps then, the gas station employees did that. They are "quick and saucy" and probably glad to have some business. (The smart-ass in me wants to point out that back in those days businesses often liked having customers and were happy to see them and worked to help them.) The comic books provide the only note of "certain" color because they are not dirty, hence they are probably newer and being read by somebody who sits on the wicker furniture with the comfy dog. Admittedly the reading of comic books does not imply intellectual pursuits but it does indicate a certain youthfulness of the sons.

I've attempted to show pictures of some of the elements in the poem on the pictures to the right (top is a taboret, the next is the daisy stitch and the third is a begonia, which often have furry, hairy leaves.) The design touches in the poem are feminine, the wicker, the plant, the doily, regardless of their greasy and dirty exterior.

I've gone into detail about the particulars of this poem because I keep reading analyses of this poem written by people who've never seen such a thing as a "family" filling station and often misconstrue the poem as being one of haughty distaste for the working class. The poet doesn't particularly dislike the men working there, but she does notice the dirt, like most women would, I might add. If you are young enough, you've probably never seen a place this filthy.

It's a woman who would notice the dirt and a woman who would embroider a doily. Somebody at the station organizes the oil cans in a row. Somebody waters the plant or it would be dead. There is an order here. Some of it is just the difference between what a woman would do and a man would do to TRY to make a place look good. Somebody there loved the men there enough to put out creature comforts not necessary to the running of the business. When she says "Be careful with that match" it could be the poet just making a remark about the oiliness of the place or somebody (who?) could be lighting a cigarette.

The passing cars are "high strung," racing by, but the people at the filling station do not seem to be. Whoever it is that loved the men at the filling station is fighting a losing battle versus the grease and oil of the place. Now, I'll let you do your own work on the poem. Just wanted you to see what Bishop is describing because she is a close observer of life and a close reading will yield up interesting things but it won't if you don't know what she's describing. Bishop's poetry is full to the brim with her sharp observations about the way things look.

Bishop traveled a lot. Due to an inheritance from someone she had the wherewithal to do so. She was a lesbian although she and Robert Lowell toyed with the idea of getting married. (Lowell wrote a poem about this- it's called "Water" if you want to look it up.) She was U.S. Poet Laureate 1949-1950. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and had Guggenheim Fellowships etc. etc.

Okay, should I drop the other shoe? I will, a little. I know the poem is somewhat amusing but I see it as something heartfelt, too. I used to feel like I was missing something as I got to the end of the poem. Now, I suspect the poet wants us to feel this way.

When the poet asks "Why oh why?" I think it's a comment on how futile it seems to love this dirty place- the decorations seem odd in a place so laden with grease and oil. Why would anybody bother? It's good to think that there is love in even in this dirty, oily place which is so opposite of what one expects love to be like. Love isn't always clean and neat and tidy, but it tries. Don't use this analysis for a term paper. Just warning you.

Here's a good quote by Bishop: "All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper - just running down the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something'. "

You can find more Bishop here:

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