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On "Filling Station"

Mutlu Konuk Blasing (1987)

[In "The Map’] [t]his disjunction or questionable relation exists within language itself: does Bishop start by questioning the color differences on the map, or do alliteration and rhyme call "shallows" forth from "shadows" to generate the questions? In "Filling Station," Bishop exploits this process whereby words of similar sounds but different meanings trigger metaphysical speculation. The "dirty" family filling station, run by the father in a "dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit" and ‘several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" – "all quite thoroughly dirty" – hums to a repetition of "oily" and "dirty" and insistent rhymes to them. When Bishop proceeds to the metaphysical question – "Why, oh why, the doily?" – the very question seems generate by the literal pattern of the poem: "doily" includes "oily." "Somebody embroidered the doily"; "Somebody / arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: / ESSO – SO – SOSO"; somebody set the poem humming to a rhyme of -y, as in dirty, oily and doily; "somebody loves us all." The questions and answers repeat and revise the dominant pattern of sounds found in the poem. Although they may rise from observation, they may also spring from the partly fortuitous and partly planned literal pattern of the poem; there is no way of telling which came first."

From Mutlu Konu Blasing, "The Re-Verses of Elizabeth Bishop," Chapter 6 in American Poetry: the Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 107-108.

Robert Dale Parker (1988)

Much depends on how we take the ending. When I first read it, I laughed out loud at the final line, and felt delighted at what I took for a trivial and charming little appreciation of motherhood. I mention that response because it may be a common one, and surely there is some truth to it. Bishop is a poet of great charm. But as we ponder the ending it gets more and more suggestive. "Somebody loves us all" – unless the poem’s evidence, namely a doily, a taboret, a begonia, and some neatly arranged cans of motor oil, doesn’t justify such an all-inclusiveness, so that the final line becomes ironic. We can read it with a sarcastic accent on somebody, as if to admit wryly that maybe somebody is fool enough to love even this oil-soaked father and his greasy sons.

… Indeed, Bishop’s work is preoccupied with motherhood, sometimes in the most unlikely places. … The unseen but much pointed to mother of "Filling station" thus seems part of a private obsession, perhaps unacknowledged, but still urgently felt as central to Bishop’s world.

For the final line of "Filling Station" turns to herself and turns to us all. The unexpected cropping up of first person plural at the end is part of what so greatly expands the poem’s final import, but in a way so gentle we can almost spoil it by pointing it out. She sustains the subtlety of what could have been a bravura pulling in of her readers by mixing it with that mysterious word somebody. The charmingly coy vagueness of that climactic reference monopolizes our attention, so that we take the effect of being brought in ourselves with hardly any notice. Which is partly the point, for the poem is about taking thins for granted. We take the work of women for granted, and that work, especially when it is the work of art, turns surreptitious in response. It gains something distinctive in that way, but loses much as well. It loses, in Bishop, some species of confidence, or else provides a specially feminine outlet for the crisis of confidence that any poet suffers. For no poet knows for sure where the next poem will come from, or whether it will come at all.

from Robert Dale Parker, "Bishop and the Weed of Poetic Invention," Chapter 1 in The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 25, 27

Bonnie Costello (1991)

["Twelfth Morning" and "Filling Station"] record feelings and emotions in response to direct observation rather than detached reflection or description. They express strong perspectives and attitudes, yet remain open to deviating details and alternative views of reality. These do not lead to a third, integrated perspective, nor to ironic awareness, but rather to questions and uncertainties.

… The begonia is hairy, the crochet is gray, but they are not preposterous. The feminine, marked by differences of diction and image, becomes the extraneous element in this greasy world (whereas the filling station had suggested a brutal affront to the speaker’s propriety). The invisible mother is a kind of poet, who makes a shabby beauty in and from filth. The poet has begun to entertain this point of view. Doily, taboret, extraneous plant indicate a creative impulse, a "note of color" rather than a controlling or disguising impulse. The humble character of the ornaments and the sampler rhetoric they inspire in the speaker ("Somebody loves us all") do not undercut their value. These are not signs of mastery but of small attempts at aesthetic order which express affection.

To those who wish to read Bishop as a poet of terror and darkness, these comforts along the highways form a significant challenge. There is something redeeming about these naïve efforts at decoration. The poem’s final observation, "Somebody loves us all," may be sardonic (‘Only a mother …") but "somebody" might, in a broader sense, imply a divine perspective in which the filth and the ornament are reconciled. But this final assertion does not really answer the questions raised in the penultimate stanza: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" The observer tries to make sense of what she sees, revising her perspective. "Somebody" still leaves the question "who?"

from Bonnie Costello, " ‘Active Displacements in Perspective,’ " Chapter 1 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 37, 38-39

C. K. Doreski

"Filling Station" [QT] offers a place to begin to delineate the problems of integrating unfamiliar or unavailable social and cultural milieus. A fussy feminine voice plots the scene. The poem moves from critique—"Oh, but it is dirty!"—to affirmation— "Somebody loves us all" without losing tone, as if to assert, despite its prissiness, its emotional range. Both assertions depend on the exaggeratedly finical persona-voice for recognition and clarification of the relationship between language-subject and object. The clarity of revelation requires the acceptance of the authority of this somewhat flighty voice.

The first stanza encounters this diminutive, dirty filling station with a tone of amused disgust. This unctuous station offers no clean surface on which to step, sit, or lean. The caretaker-narrator worries about the public welfare in this place of discarded lubricants. The place seems deserted, vaguely disturbing, alien, provincial.

The second stanza, however, introduces, or at least recognizes, the filling station family. Bishop had to delineate the oily surroundings before she could populate the station with presences that derive their identity in part from the obscuring power of the dirt and grease. Father in a "dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit" and his "several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" compose the tribe. To underscore the masculine disarray, Bishop compresses judgment with depiction: "it's a family filling station, / all quite thoroughly dirty." The work environment begs for the tidying presence of a woman, a wife, or a mother. The station itself appears to be a resting place for men and dogs: the wicker furniture ("crushed and grease- / impregnated" and with a "dirty dog") offers that residential look. Bishop allows "grease-" to teeter at the end of the line, isolating and heightening the vaguely sexual connotations of "impregnated."

The descriptively self-contained stanzas of "Filling Station" cause it to resemble "Sestina" more than any other Bishop poem. The theatrical positioning of props and people echoes the dominant image patterns of the piece. At one step removed, we glimpse the touches of those present: "Some comic books provide / the only note of color"—and perhaps someone absent: "They [the comic books] lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret / (part of the set), beside / a big hirsute begonia." Surely there can be no sense of intellectual presence, or for that matter, even craft. Bishop sees neither mind nor hand at work in the debris. Upon what then does the poem turn? Perhaps because of the orchestrating falsetto voice, the poem depends upon noting the absence of an actual feminine presence. It asks us to sense the former presence, then to miss, the decorator of the filling station. This note of nostalgia exploits conventional expectations: Domestic scenes—it is now clear that domesticity is the standard to which the narrator has held this scene—require a woman, a wife, a mother here, even as "Sestina" does.

A rhetorical cascade of questions suggests the extent of the narrator's tentatively withheld knowledge:

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.)

The selective questioning and insider's conjectures (further emphasized by the parachesis of "gray crochet") link factual and speculative registers of awareness. The poem challenges the reader to offer any explanation other than a woman's sometimes presence. No longer the harsh ds of the beginning stanzas, the calming, lullaby-like ws and ss of the oil cans sound a peaceful and reconciling note as the poem drifts to a vaguely humorous and reassuring conclusion:

[lines 34-41]

There is an understood presence, a nurturing and artistic overseer to this otherwise casual business. It is on the care and the arrangement of objects that survival depends. The soft utterances of the oil cans (pouring oil on the world's troubled waters) gently mock and soothe the high-strung automobiles that so cruelly embody the idea of cultural and social progress, a progress that has soiled this microcosm without entirely civilizing it.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Renée R. Curry

. . . in certain poems such as "Filling Station," Bishop seems incredibly aware of the relationship between her privileged white position and her aesthetic creations. In these poems, she actually interrogates the negative attitudes toward Others that her whiteness imposes upon her and affords her.

"Filling Station" situates a "disturbing" blackness in the beginning stanza of the poem:

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!

At first the omniscient narrator's attitude seems harshly judgmental but the following stanzas highlight the determinedness with which this narrator looks into the translucency in order to see the humanity existing at the filling station. Five stanzas later, the narrator comes to an understanding about love and potentially about God. Clearly, we can surmise, via Bishop's aesthetic design in this poem, that her imagination proves capable of transcending certain white racist and classist attitudes.

Importantly, however, if we read this poem as a replica of the ideological structure of at least one transformable white racist the first stanza makes it clear that the foremost thought expressed will be that of disturbance and that of a negative attitude toward blackness. As well the first stanza's last line implies fear of the explosiveness of too much blackness. It then takes five times as much processing, equivalent to the five succeeding stanzas, for the white imagination to come to a transformed place. The process of change, at least according to this poem, requires no intervention or action on the part of the Other, but rather the white person must observe, question, and transcend. What she will observe includes one human being, a family associated with that human being, the work situation of the family members, a pet who looks "comfy," some domesticating accoutrements, and the recognition that "someone" chose to decorate this place to make it livable and comfortable. This recognition is stimulated by a string of questions beginning with "why": "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" (Complete Poems 127). Upon having recognized the particular someones and their particular choices, the observer reaches a place of transcendence, a position that accepts love as one of the ultimate levelers of humanity.

Regarding white discourse, white ideology, and the white imagination, "Filling Station" looms as an epiphanic and, ultimately, unsustainable moment in the Bishop oeuvre.

from White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness. Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renée R. Curry.

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