Alan Buckley continues his close reading of ‘Filling Station’ by Elizabeth Bishop
I wish my students wouldn’t spend so much time trying to ‘discover’ themselves. They should let other people discover them. They keep telling me that they want to convey the ‘truth’ in their poems. The fact is that we always tell the truth about ourselves despite ourselves. It’s just that quite often we don’t like how it comes out.
[From ‘Elizabeth Bishop: Conversations and Class Notes’, by Wesley Wehr, The Antioch Review, Vol.39 No.3]
I was in Roddy Lumsden’s Wednesday evening group at The Poetry School in Lambeth for a couple of years in the late noughties. Quite early on we looked at ‘Filling Station’, and I remember one fellow poet (whose work I admire, as it happens) saying that he thought it was a great poem until the last line, which he would cut. You might have already guessed that I beg to differ. For me, “Somebody loves us all” is precisely what makes this a great poem, that unexpected, rug-pulled-out-from-under-you tonal shift, the line coming in with an impact not unlike the word “that crashes down like an anvil / falling through a skylight // to land on a restaurant table” in Kim Addonizio’s poem ‘Fuck’ – “Fuck” being precisely the response I still have when I reach the end of this poem.
The idea that there may be – no, must be – a mother figure in this dirty filling station, whose existence is manifested through small acts of care and tenderness, is steadily (and amusingly) developed in the second half of the poem; you could, I guess, end the poem on “high-strung automobiles”. But I’m fascinated by what moved Bishop to go further, to step out from her observer’s role into the centre of the poem with such a striking declaration. For sure, she isn’t averse elsewhere to making large “we” statements, as in the six lines beginning “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be” at the close of ‘At the Fishhouses’. But given Bishop’s intense emotional reticence, it feels uncharacteristically self-exposing to make such a bold, universal statement about love.
Bishop, too, feels a little startled by the ending of ‘Filling Station’, as if she’s found herself saying more than she might have intended to
In his Oxford lecture, Heaney suggests that this reticence, and her commitment to traditional formal constraints in her writing, mean that in American poetry “she occupies a position analogous to that long occupied on the other side of the ocean by Philip Larkin.” I think the ending of ‘Filling Station’ bears useful comparison with Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which appears to end on a similarly bold, emotional statement – “What will survive of us is love.” But if Larkin were alive today to witness those words appearing on internet memes, T-shirts (and probably mugs and fridge magnets too), he would no doubt point to how carefully and systematically the preceding poem undermines (or at least qualifies) that last line. The earl and countess carved in stone, with him holding her hand, was never meant to be a huge declaration to thousands of visitors, only “a detail friends would see”. “Time has transfigured them into / Untruth” – something “They hardly meant” has now endured through centuries “to prove / Our almost-instinct almost-true”.
Over the years I’ve come to find this poem, for all its skilful composition and nuanced exploration, rather irritating. I can’t help feeling that Larkin comes across as being a wee bit smug – he gets the payoff of a big, memorable ending, while standing aloof from all those people who seize on it to console themselves. He holds all the cards. It feels very different to the ending of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, with its “arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain”. This feels like an ending, with its sudden, transcendently life-affirming movement out of the ordinary, that startled Larkin as much as it startles the reader. I feel him surrendering to the belief in love’s transformational power, no longer sitting outside the experience he’s been carefully observing. (According to Simon Armitage’s recent Radio 4 documentary on the poem, in 1981 Larkin was asked “Did you intend to give an unqualified assent to hopefulness at the end of the poem, where you seem to be flirting with a romantic, visionary quality?” “Yes”, Larkin replied.)
Bishop, too, feels a little startled by the ending of ‘Filling Station’, as if she’s found herself saying more than she might have intended to. And it’s not just my fellow workshop group member who wasn’t keen on that last line – Bishop herself wasn’t. At the beginning of that 1974 reading of the poem, she says “This one will have to be changed – as you see somehow, I don’t know how – at the end, but I’ll read it the way it is now.” This one will have to be changed – as if it was a poem still at the stage of being redrafted. But Questions of Travel had been published nine years earlier. Bishop was notoriously careful about not letting poems into the public realm until she was absolutely convinced they were complete. As William Logan says (writing in The New Criterion, April 2006):
The deceptive ease of Bishop’s poems conceals her trouble in finishing them – she worked hard to make them fresh and offhanded, as if they hadn’t been written at all […] When she was stuck, she would pin a poem to her bulletin board and wait for the right word to come along. Sometimes this was a very long wait. ‘The Moose’ took a quarter-century to finish; and ‘12 O’Clock News’, finally published in the Seventies, was started at Vassar forty years before.
So why Bishop’s hesitancy? Why does she almost throw away that last line in the reading, then say “I’m afraid that’s wasted, no”? I think the answers lie in her biography.
The psychiatrist Bishop saw as an adult said that she was lucky to have survived her childhood
Until his death in 1977 Robert Lowell was one of Bishop’s closest friends. Following the publication of his 1959 collection Life Studies Lowell was at the forefront of what poet-critic M.L. Rosenthal christened the Confessional movement of the 1960s. Although Bishop (almost) always supported Lowell in his artistic choices, those writers who followed his lead were the object of her scorn. Poets including Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath were, according to Bishop, “the self-pitiers”, part of what she termed “The School of Anguish”. “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves” she told Time magazine in 1967.
But Bishop herself had much to be anguished about. Her father died when she was eight months old. Bishop’s mother, already psychologically vulnerable, then suffered a series of breakdowns, her mood alternating between loving and rageful. She went in and out of mental hospitals, and was finally committed permanently when Bishop was five, at which point Bishop was already living – happily – with her mother’s family in the rural community of Great Village in Nova Scotia, a place she loved and where she had often stayed before. But when she was six, she was taken away by her father’s wealthier family to live in Worcester, Massachusetts. Suffering from asthma, bronchitis and eczema – quite possibly a bodily response to the emotionally cold environment she now found herself in – her health deteriorated to the point where she was moved again, to live with one of her maternal aunts in Boston (it was thought the sea air would do her good). Aunt Maud (and her sister Grace) were immensely kind to the young girl, but Maud’s husband George sexually and physically abused her – something which Bishop, unsurprisingly, felt unable to tell her aunts, for fear of losing the genuine care she was receiving from them. The psychiatrist Bishop saw as an adult said that she was lucky to have survived her childhood.
She survived in no small part through writing – she began writing poetry when she was eight, and won her first prize as a writer (for an essay) when she was twelve. In her short story ‘In the Village’ (which is really a piece of thinly disguised memoir) the scream of the mother, which prefigures her permanent committal, is subsumed within the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer. It is a sound that runs, like a metrical beat, beneath the whole story:
Nate is shaping a horseshoe.
Oh, beautiful pure sound!
It turns everything else to silence.
Nate is an archetypal makar, using a creative fire to forge objects of use (and beauty). The poet does this too, transforming even the most challenging of raw materials into an artwork that has not only aesthetic value, but is able to contain the experiences of both reader and writer. Heaney describes Bishop’s ‘Sestina’ – which also refers to her time in Nova Scotia – as a poem that “circles unspoken sorrows […] as it circles them, it manages to mesmerize them and make them obedient to creative will”.
Diana Fuss, in her 2013 essay ‘How to Lose Things: Elizabeth Bishop’s Child Mourning’ writes that:
The explosion of Bishop criticism in the 1980s and 1990s coincides with the rise of trauma theory but also with the florescence of feminist and psychoanalytic literary criticism. Bishop emerges as an exemplar for both schools of thought in their shared project to resurrect mothers lost to history and to posit primal mourning for this lost maternal presence as the motive force of twentieth-century psychic life.
Fuss argues (and I agree with her) that Bishop’s poetry is not driven by grief at her mother’s absence. The child in ‘In the Village’ is annihilated by her mother’s scream, and appears happy to distance herself from this terrifying, unpredictable person. But if Bishop’s life, and work, isn’t shaped by the specific absence of her mother, I do believe it’s shaped by the absence of a sustained (and sustaining) maternal figure.
Pretty much all children in similar situations carry a hope (albeit one rooted in fantasy) that the absent parent will somehow heal and return, and that the lost childhood can be recovered
During the first half of the 20th century, many psychologists believed that showing affection towards children was merely a sentimental gesture that served no real purpose – or might actually lead to adult psychological problems. We now know this isn’t the case: although for the human baby a mother is a kind of filling station, she is much more than a food pump, just as what draws Bishop’s attention in ‘Filling Station’ is much more than the pumping of gas. As Harry Harlow’s illuminating (but deeply cruel) experiments on baby Rhesus monkeys demonstrated, parental affection is a crucial factor in childhood development – in particular, in the development of emotional self-regulation. And there is a clear implication in the poem that the presence of love – maternal love – is subtly essential to the station’s functioning.
Babies who suffer the kind of profound deprivation inflicted by Harlow on his monkeys are highly likely (even with some significant, long-term intervention further on in childhood) to demonstrate as adults the same levels of insecurity and inability to self-soothe as the grown-up monkeys did. It’s hardly a surprise that so many such adults turn to a different kind of filling station – the drinks cabinet, the public bar – to help them manage what they feel. Bishop was twenty-three when she met Marianne Moore, a poet twice her age who was fast building a reputation as one of America’s pre-eminent Modernist poets. There’s no question that Moore was a kind of mother figure for Bishop, although Moore’s enmeshment with her own mother, her strict boundaries, and Bishop’s years spent abroad meant that she wasn’t often an actual, physical presence in Bishop’s life. I think this suited Bishop very well, as it ensured that Moore would always be safe, manageable, and not an overwhelming (and destructive) figure in the way her actual mother had been.
But I don’t believe the yearning for a mother that Bishop could genuinely merge with ever left her, any more than it does for anyone whose mother, for whatever reasons, was unattuned and emotionally absent. A month after she first met Moore, Bishop’s actual mother – whom she hadn’t seen since her mother’s committal to an institution eighteen years before – died. Bishop’s alcohol use descended into binge drinking, and she continued to suffer from regular drink-fuelled collapses for the rest of her life, often to the point of nearly destroying both her health and her professional and personal relationships. I understand Bishop’s collapse at the point as less about the loss of her mother, and more to do with the loss of hope. Pretty much all children in similar situations carry a hope (albeit one rooted in fantasy) that the absent parent will somehow heal and return, and that the lost childhood can be recovered.
In ‘Filling Station’ Bishop, like the mother who waters the plant and embroiders the doily, is not visible – or rather, her inner world is not visible, hidden behind the persona of a repulsed (yet fixated) observer, who speaks in highfalutin’ language. But in the last line she steps out from her hiding place, and in doing so draws attention to the presence of biographical themes in the poem, most obviously that deep, untameable yearning in her – a yearning that led her to be always on the lookout, even in the unlikeliest of contexts, for evidence of the existence of maternal love. And this gesturing towards the personal, that perhaps inches her towards the Confessional poets she disliked so much, may be partly why she’s so ambivalent about the last line in that 1974 reading. As Bishop once said to fellow poet Anne Stevenson, “Although I think I have a prize ‘unhappy childhood’, almost good enough for the text-books – please don’t think I dote on it.” (At this point I think it’s worth clarifying that I’ve never felt that “Somebody loves us all” is a kind of religious statement that’s meant to invoke God. This is partly because of Bishop’s avowed atheism, but more because of her choice of language. There’s a case to be made that in the sixth stanza replacing “Somebody” with “Someone” – at least in the first three cases – would scan better, and improve the flow of the lines, although the consonance with “embroidered” and “doily” would be lost. But not only would “Someone loves us all” be a massively inferior last line; I think it’s important to Bishop that we’re told again and again about the existence of an actual body. This is not some kind of supernatural presence, but a fully embodied person who operates in and upon the material world.)
We can talk in abstract terms about the yearning to merge with a maternal object, but how that yearning manifests in the reality of adult life is usually through sexual relationships
I’ve always read that last line as being primarily serious in tone. Once I knew the full details of Bishop’s history, I tended to hear it as in fact the opposite of a firm, adult statement – “a child’s longing, not belief”, as I wrote in a poem from my collection Touched. My view has shifted, though I still don’t hear it as being as wholly comic as some critics do. Bonnie Costello, in her book Questions of Mastery, feels the line “may be sardonic”, with the implication that only a mother could love a place like this. In his London Review of Books piece on Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, Matthew Bevis writes:
[I]t’s hard to know how much irony to read into the neatness of ‘Somebody loves us all.’ Quite a bit, provided we keep in mind the definition of irony Lowell offered Bishop in a letter, one with which she gratefully concurred: “Irony is being amusing … about what we can’t understand.”
My own view is that although there is something here that Bishop can’t fully understand, there is also a sense of her being clear-eyed and direct with the reader. Costello points to an identification between Bishop and the hidden mother, whom she describes as “a kind of poet, who makes a shabby beauty in and from filth”. However, I think there is a more significant identification going on here. Bevis quotes Bishop remembering from her childhood that “so-so-so was – perhaps still is in some places – the phrase people use to calm and soothe horses.” From horses to automobiles isn’t such a great step. Equally, I don’t think it’s a great step to suggest that Bishop – who elsewhere in her work is both the sandpiper who “runs to the south, finical, awkward, / In a state of controlled panic”, and the armadillo fleeing the falling fire balloons – is also a “high-strung automobile” in need of soothing.
But I believe Bishop is saying more than this. We can talk in abstract terms about the yearning to merge with a maternal object, but how that yearning manifests in the reality of adult life is usually through sexual relationships. I’ve come to think that Bishop is throwing us off the scent with that melodramatic, snobbish narrator’s voice, and her focus on a heavily (and stereotypically) masculine environment. I think she’s truly hiding in plain sight: actually, the whole filling station is Bishop, or at least that messy, sexually driven part of Bishop that only those closest to her knew. It is she who is “quite thoroughly dirty”, she who understands just how foul Yeats’ “rag and bone shop of the heart” can be. Bishop once boasted to Lowell that she’d “never met a woman I couldn’t make”, and it’s worth remembering that what triggered Soares’ breakdown in 1966 was Bishop having had not one but two affairs, the second with the young, pregnant wife of a local artist while she was on a teaching job in Seattle. Soares had to be hospitalized, and following a further breakdown the following year, she took a fatal overdose of Valium on the first night of a trip to New York to reconcile with Bishop.
However, when Bishop wrote ‘Filling Station’ she was still very much settled in her relationship with Soares, the woman she often described as the the love of her life. And this is where the serious message of that last line comes in. Bishop, against all the odds, survived a terrible childhood. Perhaps that brief period in Nova Scotia, after her mother’s committal and before she was forced to live with her father’s family, were (just) enough, confirming what Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov: “[I]f one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.” That childhood did, however, leave Bishop struggling throughout her life with debilitating anxiety and depression (which was, along with her chronic asthma and eczema, treated with an ever-changing cocktail of medications), and prone to lengthy bouts of procrastination and heavy drinking. She can’t have been an easy person to be in a relationship with. But despite this she not only wrote a number of truly magnificent poems, she also did find love (and not just with Soares). This is what I hear now in that last line. Look, Bishop is saying (though of course she is always telling us to look). Look. If someone as messy and chaotic as I often am can be loved, then all of us can be. Maybe, picking up Bevis’ point about irony, Bishop couldn’t understand why she was loved. But she was willing to accept that she could be loved. There really is someone out there for everyone – if we’re willing to let them in, and allow them to see (to quote again from Yeats) “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”.
I wonder if Bishop’s choice to read ‘Filling Station’ was a coded way of publicly acknowledging Methfessel’s love for her
In Bishop’s case it wasn’t just one person, but two. Until the publication of Megan Marshall’s biography, it was widely thought that following Soares’ suicide Bishop had stayed single until her death. However, having taken up (at Lowell’s invitation) a teaching post at Harvard in autumn 1970, her life unexpectedly shifted course again. She was lodged in a two-room suite for visiting scholars in Kirkland House:
There she encountered the slim, sensible, twenty-seven-year-old house secretary Alice Methfessel, whose eyes Bishop described as “blue blue blue” and whose disposition was as bright as the Sunny-Side Up formula she used to lighten her cropped hair.
They soon became lovers, though their relationship was kept secret from all but a few close friends; Bishop’s habit of hiding in plain sight was not about to desert her, even as she entered her sixties. This relationship, too, came under intense stress from Bishop’s self-destructive tendencies. In 1975 Bishop’s drinking was again out of control, and Methfessel had met a man she intended to marry. The poem Bishop began writing at this time, ‘One Art’, encompasses all the many losses of her life, but is particularly focused on the loss of Methfessel – though even at this point of desperation, Bishop’s instinctive desire not to reveal too much was still present. The reference to Methfessel’s “eyes of azure aster” was taken out in the process of redrafting, and replaced with “the joking voice, a gesture / I love”, characteristics Bishop had loved in both Methfessel and Soares. Fortunately they did reconcile – fortunately for Bishop, and quite possibly for us, as readers of those late poems that Bishop might not have survived to write had the separation been permanent. They remained together until Bishop’s death from a brain aneurysm in October 1979.
There was no crisis in the relationship in 1974. In January of that year Bishop was in hospital, having broken her shoulder following a fall. Her friend Lloyd Schwarz visited her in the Harvard Infirmary. Glancing at her notebook while she was out of the room, he read a poem – ‘Breakfast Song’ – that was startlingly direct in naming both her love for Methfessel and her fear of death. Schwartz not only wanted to re-read it; he suspected that Bishop would never publish it, and might even destroy it. He hurriedly copied it out. First published in December 2002 in The New Yorker, it begins:
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Bishop gave few readings, though more in the last decade of her life as her reputation slowly grew. It’s possible that Bishop had never read ‘Filling Station’ publicly before that reading at the Library of Congress in April 1974 – in fact, I’ve not been able to find another recording of it after that event. To me it seems not just possible but likely that Methfessel would have accompanied Bishop to that reading, and would have been in the audience. I wonder if Bishop’s choice to read ‘Filling Station’ was a coded way of publicly acknowledging Methfessel’s love for her, with her questioning of that last line a classic Bishop distraction tactic, encouraging the rest of the audience to look away from what was actually there in front of them.
It’s a poem that points to the painful history of Bishop’s life without getting immersed in it, and in so doing suggests that as a possibility for its readers
In examining ‘Filling Station’ Costello comments that “To those who wish to read Bishop as a poet of terror and darkness, these comforts along the highway form a significant challenge.” Similarly, the main thrust of Bevis’ critique of On Elizabeth Bishop is that Tóibín gives insufficient attention to Bishop’s humour, and her appetite for the absurd and surreal. He quotes the postscript to a letter from Bishop to Anne Stevenson:
I went to see ‘O Processo’ – ‘The Trial’ – which is absolutely dreadful … in spite of the morbidity of Kafka etc. I like to remember that when he read his stories out loud to his friends he used to have to stop because he got to laughing so. All the way through the film I kept thinking that any of Buster Keaton’s films give one the sense of the tragedy of the human situation, the weirdness of it all, the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing, – all in a twinkling, besides being fun … I think one can be cheerful and profound!
And this is the point I’ve reached in my relationship with ‘Filling Station’, that it’s a poem that points to the painful history of Bishop’s life without getting immersed in it, and in so doing suggests that as a possibility for its readers – they too can hold their traumatic experiences (and the consequences of those experiences) with a certain lightness, which is a central part of the gift that love brings. As is often the case with any of us who’ve suffered deeply in our pasts, Bishop occasionally veered towards a kind of melodramatic melancholy that verged on self-pity. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop said to Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” But if you visit Bishop’s grave – in the perhaps appropriately named Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts – you’ll find that beneath her name and dates are the final two lines of her poem ‘The Bight’:
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.