Friday, April 18, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Filling Station

Yesterday, I carried Elizabeth Bishop's Filling Station around in my pocket. I also pasted a copy of it into my Poetry Scrapbook.

What do I love most about this poem? The combination of a slightly shocked voice---"Oh, but it is dirty!"---"disturbing"---"saucy and greasy"---with precise, unusual word choices--- "grease-impregnated wickerwork" and "hirsute begonia." Yes, I looked that up.

And the ending! Just when you think the narrator is being snooty, and far too amused at this "oil permeated" scene, the whole poem turns in on itself, asking what place beauty and care have in a world of "black translucency," and who is tending to us in our darkest hours. Bishop even pokes fun at herself (I think) as a "high-strung automobile."

What keeps you going? What is fuel? Do you think about who "waters the plant, or oils it, maybe"?

The Filling Station

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!

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 throughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Read the rest here.

For another perspective, here's a very short essay from the Poetry Foundation Blog by A.E. Stallings, who disliked The Filling Station for years.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by The Well-Read Child. And Jules at 7-Impossible Things Before Breakfast has made some sense out of the Poetry Seven's free--flowing process talk about the Crown of Sonnets that we unveiled last week. Go read.


  1. (I love the word hirsute.)

    I can see people having mixed emotions on this poem. It really in two places, kind of wallowing and rolling in all that oil, and kind of standing aloof and saying, "Well, really!" But the language loves the oil, the poet cannot lie, and the 'ESSO' bit really is lovely. I think the ending speaks to her (somehow) link with the whole place -- someone loves her too, even her high strung, disapproving, V-8 self.

  2. What a gem! I love the odd take, the surprise, the ESSO SO SO SO . . .

  3. I like this. I love the way the speaker is humbled a few pegs from her initial impulse to look down her nose... and I love the reminder that there's beauty and stewardship in the most unexpected places, sometimes.

  4. What wonderful use of images.

  5. Bishop doesn't get enough attention, methinks...

  6. The voice of the poet seems somehow astonished that dirt and beauty can coexist--I like that.

  7. And who is more blessed, the one who arranges the cans, or the one whose cans are arranged? Or maybe it takes both for there to exist a blessing?


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