Oh, but it is dirty!
-- this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
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-
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* *drum-shaped table
(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 1965
Oh Hello Everyone! A note about this poem: "Esso" is the name of the gas provider - the company turned into Exxon. I just didn't feel like putting more stars there for some reason, so you get that information here! Anyway. For this poem, I want to point out how there are several levels of emotion at play in this poem. To begin, there is the narrator's somewhat bemused attitude towards this station. Thanks to decidedly personal statements like "Be careful with that match" and "why, oh why, the doily?", we get the idea that the narrator is lamenting this gas station's awful taste and ubiquitous grime. Bishop repeats "oil" and "grease" very often, which underlines the station's filth. The hirsute (hairy) begonia is simply awful, as is the dingy-gray doily. Even choosing a doily is important, because the station's design touch is d-oily. Oil is everywhere.
Bishop heightens the idea of this po-dunk station by saying that "comic books provide / the only note of color -- / a certain color." First, the reading material is, shall we say, less than intellectual, while the final piece of that statement, "a certain color" could imply several things. The comics could just be faded in that certain way the sun has of taking all colors but blue. It could also point to the fact that the place has its own sort of flavor; the comic books provide visual color, though the place has its own color without them. Plus, the fact that she calls the visual arrangement a "set" demonstrates more of the speaker's amusement about this scene.
To this point, the filling station seems like a place nobody would actually want to visit - it's grimy and ugly and probably smelly. And yet, I don't hate this place. I actually kind of appreciate and love it, thanks to what Bishop discusses in the final stanza. She notices that these objects don't just exist as bastions of bad taste; somebody chose them. Somebody made that doily and somebody picked out that hairy begonia. She asks why they're there and then answers it in the last stanza. It's important to note that "somebody arranges the rows of cans" is in present tense, because this feeling is not simply one of fond nostalgia. These are lives.
That she doesn't find so much love and appreciation for life in, say, a meadow or a kiss maybe seems a bit curious. After all, shouldn't something that loves her spark the final insight that "Somebody loves us all?" I think not, actually. It makes perfect sense to me that this disgusting station inspires love in her (and in me). Perhaps it's that beauty clogs emotion or truth or something, stifling the genuine feeling with one of temporal surface beauty. For me, at least, ugly things often inspire more affection and compassion within me than beautiful ones. I can admire a graceful vase, but I don't know if I can love it the same way that I could love an awful vase at a thrift store. The coarse-ness allows space for empathy, for a thing's flaws make it real. It's a little sad to see the 80s chipped and cracked vase sitting there, but it, at least, has a history and a life. In "Filling Station," the father is more likeable, oil-
smeared as he may be, than the "high-strung" and presumably clean automobile at the end.
So anyway. One final point I want to add is the function this poem serves. Just as beauty can clog, disgust can, too. This poem gives us the imaginative distance from the actual grime so that we can appreciate that grease is an intrinsic part of this family. It may not be perfect or lovely, so this flawed space opens up room for love. This brings up the question of reader-participation. A poem gives us the opportunity to imagine or ignore as many aspects of a proposed image/scene as we like. So - one's interpretation can vary depending upon how much reality one gives the station. For me, I allowed myself enough room to appreciate and love the people.
PS Hey - I was organizing my PotW database this weekend in a fit of boredom, and I am missing several of the earler PotWs. If any of you still have copies of 12/1, 12/7, 12/27, 1/3, the Change in the Poem of the Week (1/17), or 4/4, I would be much obliged if you forwarded me a copy. Thank you and have a wonderful day!