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Filling Station

August 25, 2013

By Elizabeth Bishop

The reassuring idea that someone loves us however greasy and oily we are, may or may not be true. But this poem makes it so.

For a recording of Bishop reading it click here.  She begins:

“This one will have to be changed – as you see somehow, I don’t know how – at the end […].”

According to my big yellow New Yorker Book of Poems there were two changes in the version published in that magazine in 1955. Surprising replaced disturbing in verse 1 line 4, and verse 5 line 2 became Why, oh why, the table? But by the time the poem appeared in her collection Questions of Travel (1965), and in Complete Poems (2004), disturbing, and why the taboret were back. They are surely preferable. This is the text as Bishop read it, and as published in Complete Poems.

Filling Station

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!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

By Elizabeth Bishop

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