Monday, April 30, 2007

On Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"

Whenever I want to experience the life force that poetry can provide, I often turn to the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. While a poem like Bishop's "The Moose" may be grander in scope, and a poem like Bishop's "One Art" may be more technically ambitious, I find a poem like Bishop's "Filling Station" more emotionally rich and satisfying. In a way, it is kind of like the As Good As It Gets of Bishop's poetry.

In "Filling Station," Bishop details the everyday particularities of "a family filling station" with Norman Rockwellian precision in six stanzas with six or seven lines each and an ending couplet. Aside from the second stanza, which alludes to a father and his "several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons," the poem is focused on setting and, more specifically, the objects in that setting, including "a cement porch/ behind the pumps," "a big dim doily/ draping a taboret," and, of course, as only Bishop would phrase it, "a big hirsute begonia."

I like the "Filling Station," in particular, because it embodies many different, overlapping yet conflicting, ideas and emotions. It demonstrates the richness of humanity, optimistically suggesting that people can enact their love through quotidian rituals and, as the final line goes, that "Somebody loves us all."

First -- and I want to highlight this point first, because I think that critics typically have not noted it -- the poem is not only serious but humorous as well. Some might not think of Bishop as a humorist, but I think that the poem shows that she clearly has a sense of humor. There are the lines with the overtly witty double meanings to demonstrate the cleverness of the speaker herself -- "quick and saucy/ and greasy sons," comic books that "provide the only note of color --/ of certain color," "somebody waters the plant/, or oils it, maybe." Then there is Bishop the poet herself with her use of vivid, over-the-top adjective-noun combinations like "oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing over-all black translucency," "high-strung automobiles," and of course, our lovely "hirsute begonia."

Then there is Bishop making that certain kind of smart, poet inside-joke with her characterization of "the doily" -- "Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerities, I think, and heavy with grey crochet" -- as if proclaiming, "I am an Elizabeth the Poet," with the talent and ability to write circles around other poets. Indeed, I would characterize this description of "the doily," which is as "extraneous" as the "extraneous plant" (i.e. the begonia) and as "extraneous" as the depiction of the begonia itself, as the equivalent of a Michael Jordan wagging his tongue while leaping from the foul line for a slam dunk. No real need for it, but you've got to give your props -- if only we could all write like Bishop.

Second, and related, Bishop consciously infuses the speaker of the poem with a voice that is at once haughty and humble, which is as difficult a combination to pull off as serious and humorous. Bishop is clearly aware of issues of class and gender here. Her speaker self-consciously partakes in an upper/upper-middle class, stylized, self-consciously feminine way of talking, using phrases and words like "all quite thoroughly dirty," "crushed and grease-impregnated wickerwork," "a taboret," "embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites," "embroidered the doily," and, of course, let us not forget our "hirsute begonia." These fancy objects -- e.g., taboret, begonia, and doily -- seem almost out of place in an oil-soaked family filling station.

But the key word is almost. The speaker never states that they are out of place, instead posing the questions of "Why the extraneous plant?," "Why the taboret?," "Why, oh why, the doily?" and answering that "somebody" put them there and that "Somebody loves us all." Essentially, Bishop is saying that they do have their place in the filling place, and their presence exemplifies the presence of love. Love is exemplified through the simple particularities of everyday life -- a wicker sofa, a dirty dog, comic books, a taboret, and yes, even a hirsute begonia.

It is like what John Ashbery says in "Some Trees" -- "That their merely being there/ Means something," except that Bishop uses the anaphora, "somebody," in suggesting the importance of the things having been "embroidered," "water[ed]" or "arrange[d]" there by someone -- perhaps the mother or grandmother of the household. The poem thus suggests that the presumption that there are "male" settings that may exist without women, or the presumption that classes of upper class and working class people may be discretely separated, is wrong. "Somebody," a presumably upper class woman, has helped fashion the space of the filling station and at least coexists with the working class men there. Furthermore, this "Somebody," in her own particular way, brings a different kind of generative love that enlivens the filling station, just as the father and his sons enliven it in their own way, and thus "the rows of cans/ [may] softly say: ESSO--SO--SO--SO."

At any rate, what does this poem have to do with Asian-American poetry? (Why, just about everything!) But in all seriousness, transitioning from the previous couple paragraphs and making my third and last point here, I think that "Filling Station" deals profoundly with questions of identity and belonging. Practically every noun in the poem is trying to find its place in the filling station, and by extension, I would say that Bishop is suggesting that we are all trying to find our own niche in a flawed but beautiful world. Our beauty, and the beauty of the world around us, comes from funny, silly, quirky, charming, vivid specificities that make us diverse and unique. We are often both out of place and in place at the same time, as "the dirty dog" and the "greasy sons" exist in the same space with a "doily/ draping a taboret" and the "Somebody" who "embroidered" it. While the taboret, begonia, and doily may seem out of place at first glance, they actually have their own place and are essential to the existence of the filling station.

Be it the speaker with the haughty vocabulary, the parent in a dirty monkey suit, Bishop herself, anyone of any race, and the reader of the poem, "Somebody loves us all." Sometimes, I think that this ending is too simple and pat, but at other times, I feel that this poem earns this ending by showing us the love in the previous six stanzas and one line. There is a kind of reconciliation of the diverse elements of the poem, and I enjoy the generosity of this line and the poem as a whole.