Alan Buckley treats us to a close reading of ‘Filling Station’ by Elizabeth Bishop (Part One)
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
(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.
[You can hear Elizabeth Bishop reading ‘Filling Station’ on The Poetry Archive. The recording was made on 15 April 1974 at the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington DC.]
Twenty years ago, I wasn’t a writer. As a child, I’d loved writing – some poems, but mainly stories. Aged ten, I won a national competition, and had a story broadcast on the radio. But my secondary school wasn’t interested in creative writing, only writing essays that would help me pass exams. And my brother played electric guitar, so I taught myself to play bass, which seemed a much cooler thing than writing stories. Then halfway through university something in me snapped, and I couldn’t even write essays anymore. In 1990, three years after graduating, I tried for a journalism bursary with New Statesman and Society. They invited me to write some pieces for them, but whatever had snapped hadn’t miraculously been repaired, and I found I couldn’t write freely, or boldly enough. So I gave up, wrote the (very) occasional poem, and called myself a musician.
Then, in 2003, a woman from Dorset with a tin whistle and an acoustic guitar flipped my world on its head, and I realised I wasn’t really a musician at all – I was someone who wanted to be in a band, which is rather different. I realised that if I was serious about being creative, about calling myself an artist, I needed to make a serious commitment, and it wouldn’t be to music. Writing, my first love, was what I needed to give my time and energy to, and that would mean writing poetry, which seemed the only medium that could give some kind of shape to the intense feelings I was experiencing. But where to begin? In the 1980s Oxford’s undergraduate English course still stopped at Yeats and Eliot, and my knowledge of mid-twentieth century and contemporary poetry was extremely patchy. So I began devouring anthologies – Staying Alive, Poetry With an Edge, Emergency Kit. I bought the Bloodaxe poetry handbooks, and Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. I slowly began to expand my little library of single-author collections, and started finding out who were the older poets who acted as presiding spirits over them.
I learned that she wasn’t just a writer’s writer; she was, as John Ashbery said, a writer’s writer’s writer
Again and again – whether it was Michael Donaghy, or Jo Shapcott, or Don Paterson, or one of a host of other poets – the name Elizabeth Bishop came up. I learned that she wasn’t just a writer’s writer; she was, as John Ashbery said, a writer’s writer’s writer. Back in the mid-noughties it was clear her status had grown considerably since her death in 1979, and it’s only continued to grow in the following two decades. As Simon Armitage (himself a Bishop fan) says in his essay on her in A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures:
If there can be such a person as the darling of poetry, that person is currently Elizabeth Bishop. ‘Darling’, I accept, is a somewhat patronising term, but I use it as means of characterising the degree of fondness that has developed around her work […] she is ‘beloved’.
But though I could recognise their immense craft, I struggled at first to fully engage with Bishop’s poems, particularly those near the start of her Complete Poems. I found myself in the same boat as Adrienne Rich, who once described Bishop’s earlier work as “impenetrable: intellectualized to the point of obliquity”. I felt like I was back being a teenager, sitting in a schoolfriend’s smoke-filled room nodding thoughtfully to Pink Floyd, while inwardly yearning to run home and listen to Buzzcocks or The Damned. The poem that helped me stay with Bishop, and explore her writing further and more deeply, was ‘Filling Station’. It’s from her 1965 collection Questions of Travel, which was written during the middle and later parts of the fifteen years she lived in Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares.
‘Filling Station’ is full of the close attention to detail that’s the hallmark of many of Bishop’s poems. The doily is “Embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites, I think, / and heavy with gray crochet”, that lovely, interjected ‘I think’ an example of Bishop’s refusal to position herself as an omniscient or definitive observer. But what drew me to it – apart from that startling (and highly untypical) final line – was its playfulness. That’s not to say that Bishop isn’t playful elsewhere; more that her humour tends to be a little more held back, woven in, a subtle texturing that’s the equivalent of a wry smile. Here, she seems from the off to be sending herself up, that opening “Oh, but it is dirty!” the kind of thing a prim, maiden aunt might say in a 70s sitcom when describing a racy play she’s just been taken to see, her tone of shocked disapproval barely concealing her obvious excitement. And the sexual connotation of “dirty”, a word that appears four times in the first three stanzas, feels wholly intentional. This is a poem about love, for sure, but not a love of birdsong and flowers. This is a sensual and aggressively messy kind of love, that soaks and permeates and impregnates as oil and grease do, with a totality that is “disturbing” – even the doily that appears later in the poem carries the word ‘oily’ within it. It’s something that both repels and draws in the poem’s narrator, as the father in his filthy overalls goes about his work, assisted by his “quick and saucy” sons. “Be careful with that match!” Bishop warns us with a melodramatic flourish. Who knows what might be inflamed here? The word “pumps” in stanza three certainly can’t be read without a raised eyebrow.
I had missed that “gushing emotional register”. But ‘Filling Station’ helped introduce me to what we might call The Joy of Bishop
This take on love might seem at odds with the reserved, intensely private persona that Bishop presented to the world throughout her life. But it’s worth remembering how fond she was of the closing lines of Yeats’ ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ – “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” David Yaffe, reviewing Megan Marshall’s biography of Bishop (A Miracle for Breakfast) for The Nation in 2017, writes:
One of the brilliant features of Bishop’s writing was that, despite her astonishing control and mastery of forms from centuries past, she had a gushing emotional register just barely below the surface. The effect was subtle, and even at its most pitched tones, one could miss it. But Bishop’s poems were beautifully constructed edifices with emotions that bubbled close enough to the surface for readers to feel and hear them. In these poems she was, as Flaubert might have put it, present everywhere but visible nowhere.
I had missed that “gushing emotional register”. But ‘Filling Station’ helped introduce me to what we might call The Joy of Bishop.
There’s something else being set up in these opening stanzas that is also easy to miss amongst all the dirtiness. The penultimate line of stanza is a casual aside – “it’s a family filling station” – the enclosing brackets encouraging the reader to skim over it. Isn’t it anyway a redundancy? Isn’t it obvious it’s run by a family? Maybe, but bringing the word “family” into the poem, without anything to imply that we’re looking at something other than a conventional family structure, draws attention to the possible existence of a mother, who is (at this point) not visible. But it’s part of Bishop’s style to hurry us past significant moments or pointers, particularly when they touch on her own personal history. The poem bustles onwards through its compact lines and noting of detail: “Some comic books provide / the only note of color— / of certain color”. Again, we have that qualification of what’s observed – there are many things that might offer “a note of color”, but only the comic books offer “certain color”.
And suddenly, despite all its humour, the poem is revealed as having something much more serious to say
I said earlier that I see Bishop as sending herself up, by which I mean I hear her caricaturing her own educated, upper-middle-cless, New England voice. The level of this caricature is notched up further in stanzas four and five, through language that Bishop herself might have described as highfalutin’. There is “a taboret” rather than a small table or stand; the begonia is “hirsute”; the plant is “extraneous”. I imagine Bishop having a good old chuckle to herself as she wrote these lines. Then there’s another of those melodramatic flourishes – “Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why the doily?” Bishop’s diversion here into the detail of the embroidery is a perfect piece of pacing, both slowing us down, and bringing our gaze down to the very small, the very particular. This love of detail – and Bishop’s constant refusal to be definitive about what she sees – is central to her poetic practice. As Seamus Heaney says in his lecture on Bishop in The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Bishop, like Blake, can “see the World in a Grain of Sand”. “No detail too small”, Bishop tells us in ‘The Sandpiper’, a poem in which, Heaney suggests, Bishop’s purpose “is to blur the distinction between what is vast and what is tiny”. In the fourth stanza “The world is a mist. And then the world is / minute and vast and clear”, while the poem ends on the grains of sand, which earlier in the poem were being dragged by the Atlantic through the bird’s toes. But here there are millions of them, “black, white, tan, and gray, / mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst”.
For me, the attention to detail in ‘Filling Station’ has a related but slightly different purpose. The aim feels not so much to blur the distinction between what is small and what is large, but rather to lay the ground for an opening out of perspective through a meticulous portrayal of the scene. It feels as if Bishop is earning herself the right to shift into the universal through an extended commitment to being “finical” (a word she applies to her sandpiper). In the final stanza, the three “Why?” questions seem initially to be mirrored by three responses, each beginning with “Somebody”. And each of these responses is longer – and more comically dramatic – than the one before, as if we’re building up to one final punchline. You can hear on the recording from 1974 how the audience breaks into laughter when Bishop says “or oils it maybe”; and then Bishop herself struggles to control her own laughter as she reads the lines about the cans. (In the manner of Bishop, I’ll make a small aside here about the beautiful attention to sound in that final stanza – the way the ‘b’ and ‘d’ sounds of ‘Somebody’ are picked up by ‘embroidered’ and ‘doily’, which themselves chime on ‘oi’; that flood of sibilance in the third sentence, perhaps evoking a child’s nursery rhyme; and those lovely big ‘O’s, the preparation of ‘rows’ and ‘so’ leading to a fourfold repetition in line six.) But then, after all that detail, all that playfulness, all that build-up, we get the four-word line “Somebody loves us all”. And suddenly, despite all its humour, the poem is revealed as having something much more serious to say.
Part Two next week …