The opening seems tobe offering a straightforward description of the filling station: “Oh, but itis dirty!/ -this little filling station,/ oil-soaked, oil-permeated/ to adisturbing, over-all/ black translucency”. A closer inspection of the passagereveals quite a visual oil-soaked picture. This is created in large part by theoily sounds themselves. When spoken out-loud the diphthong oi in oil createsa diffusion of sound around the mouth that physically spreads the oil soundaround the passage.
An interesting seepage can also be clearly seen whenlooking specifically at the words “oil-soaked”, “oil-permeated” and “grease-impregnated”. These words connect the oi in oily with the word following itand heighten the spreading of the sound. Moreover, when studying the oiatmosphere throughout the poem the oi in doily and embroidered seems toparticularly stand out. The oozing of the grease in the filling station movesto each new stanza with the mention of these words: In the fourth stanza, “bigdim doily”, to the second last stanza, “why, oh why, the doily? /Embroidered”to the last stanza, “somebody embroidered the doily”.
Whereas the oi sound created an oily sound of language throughout thepoem, the repetitive ow sound achieves a very different syntactical feature. The cans which “softly say: /ESSO–SO–SO–SO” create a wind-like blowingeffect from the mouth. Each SO allows for a sort of visual metaphor to beseen– cars or the personified “high-strung automobiles” as they pass on by. Not only are oi and ow sounds effectively used in this poem to create aunique tone but so is the use of the cacophony k sound. In-between the oozingeffect of the oil, the reader is drawn to the sharp clicking of the k in wordslike “comfy”, “crochet”, “comic”,”color” and “cans”.
Bishop seems to be payingspecial attention to these words as the words themselves have double meaning. The poet does not want the reader to forget that they are in the harshconditions of the filling station, hence the jarring k sound, yet the meaningof the words suggest a kind, comfortable atmosphere. Bishop’s attention to the sense of sound throughout the poem aids withthe metaphoric meaning of the poem as a whole. At a very simplistic level, thepoem begins with the setting of a filthy gas station, or perhaps somewhere elsewhere conditions are not very clean, like a ghetto for example.
Combining theoily nature (ie- “oil-soaked” and “oil-permeated”)and the depressing concretness(ie- “cement porch” and “grease-impregnated wickerwork”) the reader preparesfor a very somber and even corrupt story-line. Oil and concrete are usuallyassociated with the spoiling of the natural, wholesome environment. The readeris then introduced to the type of character thought to inhabit an environment ofthis nature: a “Father wears a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” and “greasy sonsassist him”. At this point Bishop shifts the metaphoric meaning of the poemwith the introduction of the word “comfy”. Although the dog is “dirty” or “oil-soaked” it does not seem to mind the surroundings.
Oil is still very much partof the atmosphere but its effect is not as disastrous. If a match was lit, aswarned in the line “be careful with that match!” it would not be as lethal assuggested. Instead of oil, beauty begins to seep between the lines. Thebrightness of comic books, an embroidered doily daintily sitting upon the table,a huge, shaggy plant –these little touches of pleasantries add to a much homierenvironment. Someone seems to have taken great care and pride into preservingwhat little cleanliness they can manage as, afterall, “somebody embroidered thedoily” and “somebody waters the plant”.
Although still somewhat out of place inthis filling station these cheerful additions are really what make the station. Even a wild and foreign plant like that of the begonia finds a home among thefamily’s guardianship. Although in reality this family lives in the run-downstation they, themselves do not have to actually become the station. Bishop isperhaps trying to suggest that although each of us live perhaps always or attimes, in disarray and turmoil there can be that small part in us that stillsearches for hope and normalcy.
We each need a “comfy” filling station. Andalthough judgmental onlookers, or as Bishop writes the “high-strung automobiles”,may only want to see the dirtiness of an individual character, a family orsituation, they need to realize that if they look deep enough, light will shinethrough. “Somebody loves us all” if we are only to give the thought and time. Afterall, even an automobile needs oil every once in a while to continue downits path. In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that Elizabeth Bishop in the poemFilling Station has wonderfully played with different levels of language likevoice and metaphor. The reader becomes actively involved in questioning theirown filling station and the care they give toward it.
Is he or she the station,one who drives by the station or one who gives to the station?BibliographyBishop, Elizabeth. “Filling Station. ” An Introduction to Poetry. Eds.
DanaGioia and X. J. Kennedy. Eighth Edition. New York: HarperCollins CollegePublishers, 1994.