Bonnie Costello: On "The Filling Station"

["Twelfth Morning" and "Filling Station"] record feelings and emotions in response to direct observation rather than detached reflection or description. They express strong perspectives and attitudes, yet remain open to deviating details and alternative views of reality. These do not lead to a third, integrated perspective, nor to ironic awareness, but rather to questions and uncertainties.

… The begonia is hairy, the crochet is gray, but they are not preposterous. The feminine, marked by differences of diction and image, becomes the extraneous element in this greasy world (whereas the filling station had suggested a brutal affront to the speaker’s propriety). The invisible mother is a kind of poet, who makes a shabby beauty in and from filth. The poet has begun to entertain this point of view. Doily, taboret, extraneous plant indicate a creative impulse, a "note of color" rather than a controlling or disguising impulse. The humble character of the ornaments and the sampler rhetoric they inspire in the speaker ("Somebody loves us all") do not undercut their value. These are not signs of mastery but of small attempts at aesthetic order which express affection.

To those who wish to read Bishop as a poet of terror and darkness, these comforts along the highways form a significant challenge. There is something redeeming about these naïve efforts at decoration. The poem’s final observation, "Somebody loves us all," may be sardonic (‘Only a mother …") but "somebody" might, in a broader sense, imply a divine perspective in which the filth and the ornament are reconciled. But this final assertion does not really answer the questions raised in the penultimate stanza: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" The observer tries to make sense of what she sees, revising her perspective. "Somebody" still leaves the question "who?"


from Bonnie Costello, "‘Active Displacements in Perspective,’" Chapter 1 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 37, 38-39.