“Why, oh why, the doily?”: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”

This weekend, I was reading a very interesting essay on the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (Austin Allen’s “Their Living Names”), when it struck me that I’ve never featured Elizabeth Bishop on the site.

My high school English classes featured shockingly little poetry; I can remember the novels we read, but the only poems that spring to mind, besides a sonnet or two, are Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing” (which I’m pretty sure was on a mock-AP test), Cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station.”

I remember “Filling Station” in particular because nobody in our class knew that “Esso” was a brand of gasoline (it’s an older name for Exxon-Mobile, still used in countries outside the United States), and so we found that line frustrating as we worked on the poem as a class. Bishop’s “big hirsute begonia” is the first time I remember hearing the word “hirsute,” and I’ve never forgotten it.

The details of the poem serve to highlight absence and presence: the presence of the father and sons and the dog, all dirty and greasy, but seemingly content, and the absence of the figure who put out the wicker furniture, waters the plant, and who embroidered the doily.

I liked the poem in high school, for its leap from first to last line, and as an adult I think I better see the way Bishop points to the kinds of work people do: visible work, like running a filling station, and the quieter, almost invisible work of caring and beautifying. The results of that kind of work are often hiding in plain sight, even if the worker—the “somebody”—is absent.

7 thoughts on ““Why, oh why, the doily?”: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”

  1. You know, I don’t think we did very much poetry at all in high school. We must have done some, but I can’t think of a single one (I know it’s been a while, but still…). I hope my kids do some.

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading: Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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