Elizabeth Bishop’s skill as a poet can be clearly seen in the thought-provoking poem entitled Filling Station. She
paints the different language levels of poetry with the skill of an artist– she seems to have an eye for detail as she
contrasts the dark and dim reference of a filling station to a more homey, pleasant atmosphere. Bishop aptly
arranges her words and expressions through the language devices of voice and metaphor.
In Filling Station, Bishop uses tone of voice brilliantly, through the use of phonetics, to create the poem’s
initial atmosphere. The opening seems to be offering a straightforward description of the filling station: “Oh, but it is
dirty!/ -this little filling station,/ oil-soaked, oil-permeated/ to a disturbing, over-all/ black translucency”. A closer
inspection of the passage reveals quite a visual oil-soaked picture. This is created in large part by the oily sounds
themselves. When spoken out-loud the diphthong oi in oil creates a diffusion of sound around the mouth that
physically spreads the oil sound around the passage. An interesting seepage can also be clearly seen when looking
specifically at the words “oil-soaked”, “oil-permeated” and “grease-impregnated”. These words connect the oi in
oily with the word following it and heighten the spreading of the sound. Moreover, when studying the oi
atmosphere throughout the poem the oi in doily and embroidered seems to particularly stand out. The oozing of
the grease in the filling station moves to each new stanza with the mention of these words: In the fourth stanza, “big
dim doily”, to the second last stanza, “why, oh why, the doily? /Embroidered” to the last stanza, “somebody
embroidered the doily”.
Whereas the oi sound created an oily sound of language throughout the poem, the repetitive ow sound
achieves a very different syntactical feature. The cans which “softly say: /ESSO–SO–SO–SO” create a wind-like
blowing effect from the mouth. Each SO allows for a sort of visual metaphor to be seen– cars or the personified
“high-strung automobiles” as they pass on by. Not only are oi and ow sounds effectively used in this poem to
create a unique tone but so is the use of the cacophony k sound. In-between the oozing effect of the oil, the
reader is drawn to the sharp clicking of the k in words like “comfy”, “crochet”, “comic”,”color” and “cans”. Bishop
seems to be paying special attention to these words as the words themselves have double meaning. The poet does
not want the reader to forget that they are in the harsh conditions of the filling station, hence the jarring k sound, yet
the meaning of the words suggest a kind, comfortable atmosphere.
Bishop’s attention to the sense of sound throughout the poem aids with the metaphoric meaning of the poem
as a whole. At a very simplistic level, the poem begins with the setting of a filthy gas station, or perhaps somewhere
else where conditions are not very clean, like a ghetto for example. Combining the oily nature (ie- “oil-soaked” and
“oil-permeated”)and the depressing concretness (ie- “cement porch” and “grease-impregnated wickerwork”) the
reader prepares for a very somber and even corrupt story-line. Oil and concrete are usually associated with the
spoiling of the natural, wholesome environment. The reader is then introduced to the type of character thought to
inhabit an environment of this nature: a “Father wears a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” and “greasy sons assist him”.
At this point Bishop shifts the metaphoric meaning of the poem with the introduction of the word “comfy”. Although
the dog is “dirty” or “oil-soaked” it does not seem to mind the surroundings. Oil is still very much part of the
atmosphere but its effect is not as disastrous. If a match was lit, as warned in the line “be careful with that match!” it
would not be as lethal as suggested. Instead of oil, beauty begins to seep between the lines. The brightness of
comic books, an embroidered doily daintily sitting upon the table, a huge, shaggy plant –these little touches of
pleasantries add to a much homier environment. Someone seems to have taken great care and pride into preserving
what little cleanliness they can manage as, afterall, “somebody embroidered the doily” and “somebody waters the
plant”. Although still somewhat out of place in this filling station these cheerful additions are really what make the
station. Even a wild and foreign plant like that of the begonia finds a home among the family’s guardianship.
Although in reality this family lives in the run-down station they, themselves do not have to actually become the
station. Bishop is perhaps trying to suggest that although each of us live perhaps always or at times, in disarray and
turmoil there can be that small part in us that still searches for hope and normalcy. We each need a “comfy” filling
station. And although judgmental onlookers, or as Bishop writes the “high-strung automobiles”, may only want to
see the dirtiness of an individual character, a family or situation, they need to realize that if they look deep enough,
light will shine through. “Somebody loves us all” if we are only to give the thought and time. Afterall, even an
automobile needs oil every once in a while to continue down its path.
In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that Elizabeth Bishop in the poem Filling Station has wonderfully
played with different levels of language like voice and metaphor. The reader becomes actively involved in
questioning their own filling station and the care they give toward it. Is he or she the station, one who drives by the
station or one who gives to the station?
Bishop, Elizabeth. “Filling Station.” An Introduction to Poetry. Eds. Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy. Eighth
Edition. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994.