There were those who greatly despised Leaving Certificate poetry and then there were those who did not. I was one of the latter. Being taught by an eccentric woman, native of Cork, who would become so enthused by the works of Shakespeare, Keats, and Bishop that she would adopt an almost animalistic wildness into her demeanour was nothing short of absolutely riveting. Somewhere between the grandiose gesticulations, the many digressions concerning her appreciation for fresh mackerel, and the pantomime dimension of her class, Ms. Forde managed to open up within me a deep appreciation for poetry and the written word. And also freshly caught mackerel. It has to be fresh though. None of that store bought crap!
The poets themselves played an important role in this process too, or rather their space and time defying words did. I remember the majority of them with startlingly clarity although the ones I was never really a fan of have kind of fallen by the wayside (sorry Mahon). Elizabeth Bishop was queen among the poets of the day and in terms of poetic magnificence and in my mind was rivalled only by the romantic John Keats. On the corridors outside of class some people were trying to push John Montague and Derek Walcott as the primo-poets of the day and I would regularly receive detention for pimp slapping such fools.
The Filling Station is a poem by Elizabeth Bishop that is simple and funny. You can read it here and I recommend you do so now. In one of the finest demonstrations of poetic vision, I’m aware of, Bishop enters an entirely normal, if not mundane, locale and draws a stupid amount of poetic potential from it, penning all of this in her extraordinary little poem. Much like the seemingly ordinary setting, Bishop’s poem is simple and comfortable and, much like the feeling that simple comforts bring, heartily uplifting.
“Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!”
The first stanza (or verse, which ever you like really) of the poem contains one of my favourite opening lines from any poem. In a single exclamatory remark Bishop not only sets the scene but conveys the tone of the poem; it’s conversational, it’s light hearted, it’s amused. Further describing the station we see the repetition of the word oil, simply to reinforce the point, but it’s the near rhyme between oil and all, as well as the repetition of the ‘el’ sound throughout the stanza which really captures the sensation and makes the words slide around the tongue granting an impression of the stations almost absolute lubrication. Bishop wraps up the first stanza with another little exclamation which has much the same effect as the first. [pullquote] When dealing with poetry things can get pretty stuffy pretty quickly but a poem like The Filling Station brings a refreshing amount of zesty humour to the page.[/pullquote] Her humour continues to permeate and inform the other stanzas in images like “oil-soaked monkey suit” and “dirty dog” and my personal favourite “several quick and saucy |and greasy sons”. Saucy. As openings go this one is hella strong. When dealing with poetry things can get pretty stuffy pretty quickly but a poem like The Filling Station brings a refreshing amount of zesty humour to the page. As the reader will become acutely aware, we’re dealing with a poet of such profound ability that she doesn’t feel the need to take herself too seriously at all, while at the same time she’s capable of delivering really insightful observations about life and all of it from the unassuming little station.
Bishop’s playful investigation of the scene and the men who inhabit it is played out in the questions she asks. Keeping her language simple and direct these questions convey her curiosity towards the men and their situation; “Do they live in the station?” Bishop finds the answer to this question as her eye is drawn around the station, focusing on the various domestic details which occupy the space. The incongruity of these items becomes apparent to Bishop and she directly questions their presence at the station with a triad of questions that opens the fifth stanza;
“Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?”
Impressive enough to notice the details in the first place Bishop pushes further and tries to find the meaning behind their presence, tries to bridge the gap of incongruity between the slick oil stained workmen and the dainty domestic details which have been carefully placed and maintained in their presence. We see again simplicity in the language used with the repetition of the word why as well as the return of the exclamatory oh from the opening lines. As the second last stanza of the poem Bishop brings the narrative and dramatic tension to its climax; the inquiries which have driven her observations are fully articulated and in the final stanza gloriously answered.
“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.”
Evasively Bishop never outright answers the questions she has posed. Instead she adopts a more subtle quality which the embroidered doily and the plant exude, a quiet and indirect resonance and presence. Bishop never names the conscious effort which has placed the doily and made the filling station into a home because it has, in its own subtle efforts, itself elected to remain nameless. [pullquote] Bishop draws her ultimate conclusion, that if the filling station is a reflection of life, there’s somebody behind all of us, placing down plants and doilies, and we can feel safe in the knowledge that they love us unconditionally. [/pullquote] I’ve known people who’ve understood this presence to be the ‘feminine domestic influence’ and others took a more literal approach and named the wife and mother of the workmen and his sons, while yet others didn’t really care for the doily and focused on the earlier, oilier passages. I leave such interpretations up to you. What speaks to me though is the beautiful sibilance, the repetition of the ‘es’ sound throughout the verse (or stanza, which ever you prefer) which, more so than having any real literary merit, just sounds fantastic. For me it brings the poem back to a more fundamental expression of aesthetic quality; the simplicity, the repetition, the refrain of ‘somebody’, the sibilance. It all sounds so soothing and reassuring and exudes comfort. These feelings of security are mirrored in the last line as Bishop draws her ultimate conclusion, that if the filling station is a reflection of life, there’s somebody behind all of us, placing down plants and doilies, and we can feel safe in the knowledge that they love us unconditionally.
It was a reassuring thought for a seventeen year old me, as the Leaving Certificate examinations loomed, and I sat sulking in detention.
Did you like The Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop? What do you think about it? Comment below.