National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”

April 30, 2011

ESSO Station 2

Image by *Kid*Doc*One* via Flickr

I love a poet with a sense of humor and who delights in wordplay, especially when she achieves her poem’s aims while making the reader smile.

Those who know me or read my poetry blog or follow me on Twitter or have been on my National Poetry Month email list for some time know that Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.  And you also know that this year marks the centennial of her birth (born 8 February 1911).  I’ve been celebrating this important centennial in a variety of ways.

I’d like to close this year’s National Poetry Month with a poem by Ms. Bishop called “Filling Station.”  I suggest you read it out loud and pay attention to the alliteration and internal rhymes.

It starts with an observation of a “dirty” family filling station, run by a father in a “dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” with “several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons.”  They are “all quite thoroughly dirty,” which creates an incantation of “oily” and “dirty,” evolving into almost a portmanteau of dirty and oily in “doily.”

Bishop is playful in this poem and when she concludes with the final stanza by repeating “oi” and “so” and “-y” sounds, culminating in that brilliant arrangement of oil cans, I can’t help chuckling no matter how many times I read it.

Somebody loves us all, indeed. Happy Birthday, Ms. Bishop.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “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 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-

impregnated wickerwork;

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:

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

–Elizabeth Bishop

Here’s a recording of Ms. Bishop reading this poem from Poetry Foundation/Bishop

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