Beauty and Aesthetics
An oil-soaked filling station seems an odd subject for a poem. This scene—“Oh, but it is dirty!”— is a stark contrast to those objects of natural and human beauty, which have traditionally inspired poets and artists. An oil-soaked monkey suit, a dirty dog, and a doily heavy with gray crochet would normally avert the eye, not attract it. Bishop’s poetics, however, required a certain morality. It was part of her “aesthetic ethic” to be responsible for what she sees, even if what stands before her, like the moose in another poem, is “homely as a house.”
Bishop’s mentor and friend, Marianne Moore, encouraged Bishop to revere the most ordinary, seemingly ugly things of the world, to see them as worthy of attention and naming. In “The Fish,” as in “Filling Station,” the poet’s patient looking is rewarded in illumination. When she first catches the huge fish, “He hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely . . . infested / with tiny white sea-lice,” but as the poem proceeds, something else happens: “I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat,” until at last “everything / was rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.”
As “Filling Station” proceeds stanza by stanza, the reader witnesses a similar process of revelation. The poet’s eye lingers on the greasy scene long enough to stir curiosity: “Do they live in the station?” “Why the extraneous plant?” Instead of answers, the questions lead to a different way of seeing. The eye of the poem begins to see a certain harmoniousness and the presence of intentional spots of beauty, even though the surfaces of the scene are uniformly dingy. The eye has looked long enough to penetrate, and go beyond the usual judgments of such things, as unworthy of art or attention. Moreover, this beauty is not an accident: “Somebody embroidered the doily” and “Somebody / arranges the rows of cans.” Some unnamed being “waters the plant” and cares for this grimy little cosmos, thus bringing a beauty to it that subverts all poetic cliché. At the end of the poem, beauty finds its source in love, and the poem suddenly opens out to “us all.” In doing so, it suggests that no human being, no matter how “thoroughly dirty,” is beyond the beautifying power of love.
Masculine and Feminine
“Filling Station” presents the reader with a microcosm, a little world, unified by the pervasive presence of oil, and complete with human and animal, work and rest, order and disorder, masculine and feminine. Feminist critics would be especially interested in the presence of the latter, those “markers” in the poem that indicate a consciousness of gender.
Feminist criticism is one of the most important trends in literary criticism in the last quartercentury. Generally speaking, feminist critics look at the presence, or absence, of a feminine consciousness in works of literature and in the ways works by women are received. They also seek to repair what they view as centuries of exclusion of women writers from a male-dominated Western literary canon. Feminist criticism has significantly raised the awareness of gender and sex roles in literature.
The masculinity of “Filling Station” is suggested in rather traditional images. The automobile industry—manufacture, repair, and service—has been largely controlled by men, and this was still certainly the case during the decades from which Bishop draws on her memory. Accordingly, this station is a father and son operation. Moreover, the language of male sexuality is as pervasive as the petroleum. This is, after all, a “filling” station equipped with several “pumps,” and the furniture is “impregnated” by grease. The stereotypical dog “man’s best friend,” lies on the wicker sofa, just as dirty as his human companions.
However, even though the inhabitants and surfaces of this place are distinctly masculine, there is a feminine consciousness to match it, revealed in the poem’s voice and in the traces of a feminine aesthetic in the station. It happens in the first line— “Oh, but it is dirty!”—the fussy tone of a woman for whom cleanliness is a priority. “Be careful with that match!” has the maternal sound of one who is naturally concerned for the safety and health of her household. Beginning in stanza three, the poem questions “why” the presence of a domestic aesthetic amidst this male-dominated place: a begonia, embroidered doily (“daisy stitch”), a wicker taboret, a soothing arrangement of cans. These can be read as feminine markers in the poem, and therefore open to an examination of gender awareness and stereotyping. But the poem never says “she” in the last stanza, leaving the agent of this care and aesthetic open to question. The “somebody” who attends this scene and “loves us all” may be beyond the ascribing of gender.
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.