The first line of “Filling Station” is an exclamation: “Oh, but it is dirty!” The last line of that stanza also exclaims, in an imperative warning: “Be careful with that match!” Between those lines, this world is described as black and greasy. And that “overall black translucency” is “disturbing,” not because it is unclean, but because it is altogether fragile. With a single match, it could all go up in flames. The voice that exclaims “it is dirty!” is more caring and maternal than judgmental.
Particular features of the “little” station begin to emerge in the second stanza. This is a family-run business (as was that of Bishop’s father), and everyone shares the same patina of grease. At the helm is “Father” in his “oil-soaked monkey suit,” which is obviously too small for him. It “cuts him under the arms,” suggesting both that Father is large, and may be too poor to afford work clothes that fit him well. His many unnamed sons, described as “thoroughly dirty,” don’t emerge as individuals; they all seem to be the same—“quick and saucy / and greasy”—as they assist their father in servicing the automobiles. The lines of this stanza have settled from exclamation into clear-eyed declaratives, statements of observation.
Stanza three begins with a question: “Do they live in the station?” In these lines, the presence of domestic features—a porch with its wicker furniture and lazy dog—suggests the possibility. “Quite comfy” specifically describes the dog, but also the general atmosphere of the place, despite its pervasive dirtiness. The speaker notes there is little distance from the pumps to the porch, which is also “impregnated” by grease.
The question that begins stanza three continues to be answered in stanza four. The eye travels next to a taboret and adjacent begonia. These objects, in all their “unrehearsed reality,” are composed within the “frame” of this stanza much like one of Bishop’s watercolor paintings. The taboret is adorned with “some comic books” whose contents are unspecified. What is important to the poem is their color, for it is the “only note of color” in this otherwise oil-clouded scene. One is left to imagine the “certain” or bright colors of the comic books, which lie “upon a big dim doily.” A doily is a lace or linen cloth, often handmade, used to protect and adorn a piece of furniture. This large doily is “dim” from exposure to the same substance that permeates the family’s furniture and clothing. The houseplant, a begonia, is not attractive in the conventional way. The reader learns nothing of its color or foliage, even though begonias are usually grown for their showy leaves and blooms. This one, instead, is big and “hirsute,” or hairy. It seems to have taken on the general masculinity of the family business.
The next-to-last stanza moves from observation into questioning—“why?” The plant seems “extraneous,” irrelevant or unessential to the practical dirty workaday business of filling gas tanks. So, “why is this plant here?” the poem asks. Likewise, “why” the taboret? It seems its only reason-to-be is to hold comic books. Even calling it a “taboret” seems an exotic gesture on the part of the poem’s speaker, where the more inelegant “stand” might have sufficed. And finally, “Why, oh why, the doily?” exclaims the voice, as though such decor merits the question twice. “Why this gratuitous bit of beauty in such a dingy place?” “Why” this once-pretty piece of handwork? As if to probe the mystery, the eye of the poem draws closer to the doily and finds it an odd combination of fresh and stale, both “embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites” and “heavy with gray crochet.”
No reasonable “because” answers arrive to satisfy this series of “whys.” Instead, the last stanza registers a change in consciousness, leading from one mystery to another. Just as oil “fills” every surface and opening within reach of the pumps, the mysterious presence of “Somebody” fills the last stanza. Regardless of “why” the doily and plants exist in a filling station, “somebody” brings beauty and care to that unlikely place. Somebody has infused a “useless” loveliness into this small world, even into the arrangement of oil cans, so that the visible letters seem to chant; “ . . . they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO / to high-strung automobiles.” The only answer to “why” reaches beyond logic and practicality to love. “Somebody loves us all,” the poem concludes simply, and profoundly. The journey of perception from first stanza to last has led from surface to depth: from an almost-fussy focus on the dirty aspect of things, to a consciousness of their connection with something deeper, a love that fills the station and beyond.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Elizabeth Bishop, Published by Gale Group, 2001.