The ‘Filling Station’ is a poem halved into two layers of life, where one is the external setting which everyone sees – the grimy and dirty filling station – while the other is the internal setting that you need to look to see – the cared for home. Bishop marks out the love beneath the grime, the softness of family life underlying the dreariness of the struggle for survival. greasiness and within this weaves the message that we are all loved by someone, regardless of our social or personal standpoint.
The use of connotations highlight the key illustrations made by Bishop, where the very introduction of the filling station is that of dirt and filth which is supplemented with the repetition of the word ‘oil’ in ‘oil-soaked’ and ‘oil-permeated’. Bishop is very careful with her diction as she calls the whole scene ‘disturbing’ and even presents wariness of the setting with the last line of her first stanza, ‘Be careful with that match!’ which evokes a sense of fearful cautiousness in the scene along with the colour ‘black’ as it is normally symbolised with signs of danger. These morbid illustrations are reflected not only in the setting, but within the habitants of the setting as well, from the father to his sons, Bishop points out the complete absence of beauty of their work life. She again uses the connotation associated with ‘oil-soaked’ in the clothing of the father, who is also ‘dirty’. When Bishop observes closely as to how the father’s dress ‘cuts him under the arms’ we find an underpinned picture of the poor and poverty-struck, the ones that we don’t take seriously, having to do hard work and manual labour to survive in society. The sons are equally connoted with dirt and filth, where Bishop uses assonance of ‘quick’ ‘saucy’ and ‘greasy’ to attribute the sons, and characterise that it was a ‘family filling station’ which is all ‘thoroughly dirty’.
The third stanza produces a hint of transgression from the critical point of view by taking a peep into their personal life with the first discovery of an item of relaxation – though grease-impregnated, a place for it, the porch, simple items of entertainment, suggesting presence of children, pet and family employed by Bishop as she looks for clues of their livelihood, established by the rhetorical question, ‘Do they live in the station?’. The poet finds little comforts of a home, with contrasting nuances to describe a ‘cement porch’ which lay ‘behind the pumps’ as there is a parallel between work and home. The ‘crushed’ wickerwork which is also ‘grease-impregnated’ show the little signs of beauty that, even if broken and not proper, are still there underneath the dirt. The ‘dirty’ dog on the ‘wicker sofa’ forms a juxtaposition of discomfort emanated from the dirt of the setting with comfort stemmed from home. The fourth stanza completes the transgression from the perspective of disgust and repulsion to the perspective of home and comfort. It moves from the ‘blackness’ of the ‘oil-permeated’ workplace to the little bits of colour on the ‘comic books’ where the comics are the elements of the home life. Bishop then eyes the alliterative description of the ‘dim doily draping’ a ‘taboret’ which instils a delicate feminine domestic component which also stands in contrast with the ‘saucy’ nature of the males. The ‘hirsute begonia’ are also symbolisations of a home life as these are commonly found home plants.
The anaphoric questions in the fifth stanza rev up the revelations that contribute to the homely state, where Bishop asks in a fire of inquisitions why all these little monuments of the beauty and home – the daisy embroideries and grey crochets – are juxtaposed with the dirty and grime nature of the filling station. This is answered in the last stanza where Bishop understands that there is an unknown ‘somebody’ at works who takes care of them all. The somebody who ‘waters the plants’ and using a bit of humour, Bishop remarks, also ‘oil’ it. There is somebody who arranges the cans and with the sibilance of the ‘esso-so-so-so’ and the personification of humans as ‘high-strung automobiles’, the poet gives a complete turnaround in her use of connotations as she now finds the softness and comfort of the home ensuing from the conclusion that there is always somebody – a person behind the stage – who loves us unconditionally.
The theme, therefore, is one of unconditional love and of love that we don’t see at work, but is still there in bits and pieces, in the wickerwork and the doilies. The poem is about comfort, ironically placed in a scene of discomfort where Bishop goes from being completely disgusted by the setting to another realm of love and appreciation. ‘Filling Station’ is beautiful and comical sketch of how if we look beyond the dirt and the dust, the grime and the grease, we see a picture of love and care.