National Poetry Month — Elizabeth Bishop “Filling Station”

I’m late today, but here I am. Okay, so I said I wouldn’t be discussing poetry with the usual suspects, and I’m only bending the rule today, not breaking it. Today’s Poetry Conversation is with Katy Duffield, critique partner and precious friend of mine, but believe it or not, someone I don’t usually discuss poetry with.
Katy, though, is getting a college degree and has been reading more poetry than she ever has. AND she is the gal who turned me on to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Had I ever read it? I don’t remember. But when Katy raved about it last year, I checked it out. (And when I was planning these Poetry Conversations, I did have to go back and confirm that it was Bishop that Katy had raved about!)

So here’s the deal. The first Bishop poem I ever read reminded me of my Papa, my mama’s daddy. Oh, Papa. He was rough around the edges, and he cussed, and he was quite a character. And then he had a stroke, and he softened, and was sentimental and sweet and I like to think he’d even have liked for me to read this Bishop poem to him.

You see, before Papa retired he ran a gas station. I remember going by his gas station, though I’m not sure if it was while he was still working there or if it was afterward when he stopped by to shoot the breeze with his friends. If I’m not mixing my memories, I remember getting a coke and some peanuts (and the peanuts always went *into* the bottle of coke) and hanging out while Papa and his cronies chewed the fat. So, when I read Bishop’s "Filling Station", it was all Papa, all the way through.

Here’s a taste:

Filling Station

by Elizabeth Bishop

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!

Read the rest here. (Oh, please do. It’s worth it.)

So when I sent this one to Katy, she immediately bit:

“Filling Station” is one of Bishop’s poems that I have previously read, and it is one of my favs as well. What I truly love about so many of Bishop’s poems is how she paints these perfectly magnificient word pictures. Can’t you just visualize the “over-all / black translucency” of the oil covered scene, the father in his “oil-soaked monkey suit”, his “greasy sons” and the “grease- / impregnated wicker work”? I mean even the dog is filthy! Bishop doesn’t specifically mention the smell of the old oil and grease, but in reading her words, I can SMELL it—I get a whiff of the pungent greasy-grime. I can feel it’s slick gumminess under my fingers. Bishop’s words so perfectly convey the scene it’s as if I’m standing on the corner surveying the situation with my own eyes. This is the kind of writing that gets me excited about poetry."

Oh! Isn’t that just what you love to hear? The kind of writing that gets one excited about poetry?

Katy goes on:

"I also love that Bishop injects subtle humor into the poem. With her admonition, “Be careful with the match!” Bishop emphasizes that with the greasiness of the station and with the fact that it’s such a mess, it wouldn’t take much to set it ablaze. The juxtaposition of the colorful comic books, the doily, and the carefully placed begonia against the greasy, grimy backdrop evokes a smile as well."

I have to add here that EVERY TIME I read this poem, when I get to the line that says, "somebody waters the plant,/or oils it, maybe" I laugh out loud. To me *that* is the funniest line.

And here’s what makes it personal for Katy, and what makes me so glad I asked her for her thoughts on the poem:





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"On top of all that, the last two stanzas add an extra special-ness to this piece for me. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m an extra-sappy mom. I love that, who the reader assumes is the mother in the piece, the “Somebody”, cares enough about her family to inject some beauty and happiness into this otherwise somewhat dreary existence. The fancily-stitched, frilly doily, the begonia, the comic books, and the perfectly arranged ESSO cans depict that someone (in my eyes, the wife and mom) cares enough to put forth the extra effort to brighten her family’s day—even if it’s simply adding small touches where she can. Awwww….
“Somebody loves us all.”

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12 thoughts on “National Poetry Month — Elizabeth Bishop “Filling Station”

  1. I have never had peanuts in a coke but this does make me want to try them.

    I love that your friends are so willing to “go there” with you. I’m really enjoying these conversations. It makes poetry accessible to everyone.

  2. This is fantastic! Thanks, Kristy, for telling me about what you’re doing for April. Love this whole idea!

    And wonderful poem and exchange today. My favorite lines:

    Some comic books provide
    the only note of color–
    of certain color.

    There’s plenty of grey/black/grease/indeterminate color–only the comic books have ACTUAL, recognizable color.

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