North & South, Questions of Travel, Geography III. Elizabeth Bishop was pretty much obsessed—with place, that is. Her mind was practically made of maps. She was, to put it simply, a geography buff, and she was lucky enough to live in a ton of different places in her life. She began in Nova Scotia, then moved at a very young age (after her father died and her mother suffered from several mental breakdowns, permanently institutionalizing her) with family in Worcester, Massachusetts. Over her lifetime, she saw and experienced a big chunk of the world: Boston, New York, Paris, Key West, and Brazil. Not too shabby, by world traveling standards.
As you might expect, a fair amount of her poetry celebrates and examines Place with a capital P. "Filling Station" comes from her 1965 collection, Questions of Travel. Half of the collection focuses on her time in Brazil, where she fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a Brazilian socialite and architect. The other half of the collection is subtitled "Elsewhere." That's where "Filling Station" falls.
And elsewhere, in this case, is a gas station. We know, it doesn't sound like a place that's ripe for poetic treatment. But Liz makes it work. Maybe it was her sense of placeless-ness and homelessness that drove Bishop to chronicle each of these places with such particular attention to detail, no matter how mundane they may seem. This dirty filling station (which she probably encountered sometime during her travels) seems like nothing special to us, and indeed, to the speaker at first. But as Bishop reminds us in the poem, every place has something special behind it. Every place has its own story to tell.
You can't judge a book by its cover, but we so often do. It's age-old advice: don't make up your mind about something just because of the way it looks. Yet sometimes it's just too tempting to assume that things really are just the way they seem. And sometimes we're right. Remember that movie trailer that was so boring you could barely sit through two and a half minutes of it? Yeah, that movie really stunk it up. Surprise, surprise.
But sometimes you're surprised, and you find out just how deceiving looks can be. You discover that once you talk to him, that the brooding kid in your class who keeps to himself and is always scowling is actually a really nice guy, and that he's just shy. Or you find out that the documentary about the Civil War that you're dad made you watch on Sunday was actually kind of riveting, much to your chagrin.
Well, "Filling Station" is like that. The speaker comes at us with some pretty harsh judgments on the place right away, but as the poem picks up, she starts to notice that there's a lot of good stuff under all those layers of grime. She's willing to open her eyes a bit, and as a result, we get to see the big picture: that sometimes it's worth taking a closer look.