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Filling Station

Filling Station

by Elizabeth Bishop

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

Oh, but it is dirty!

  • Harsh! We can assume the speaker is talking about the filling station being dirty since the title clues us in to the subject of the poem. 
  • And what did this filling station ever do to her? It must be pretty dirty if the speaker decides to the poem with an exclamation.
  • Starting a poem with an outburst like this makes it seem like the speaker is in mid-conversation, or at least mid-thought, so it feels like we're getting this information right as it enters the speaker's mind, like we're right there with her. 
  • And frankly, we're not sure if we like her just yet. Right off the bat, the speaker seems to be a bit judgmental. How would you feel if someone wrote a poem about you and began it with a line like this? Maybe she needs to walk a mile in the gas station's shoes.

Line 2

this little filling station,

  • This is no palace of a filling station. It's just a small place. And did we mention it's dirty?
  • A filling station, by the way, is an automobile service station. You know—the place where you fill up your tank, get oil changes, mechanical repairs, etc.
  • Again, Bishop seems to be bad-mouthing the place. It's little, it's dirty. So far, it's not getting rave reviews.

Lines 3-5

oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency. 

  • Okay, so all this dirty-ness? It's got a particular quality to it: grease and oil. As the speaker tells us here, everything in the filling station is greasy and oil-caked. It seems to be completely blackened by years of oil residue. Nasty. 
  • "Oil-permeated" means that it's oiled through and through. This isn't just a surface dirtiness that can be wiped off with some Windex and a roll of paper towels. 
  • The speaker seems totally disturbed by the level of filth, too. The repetition of "oil" and the adjective "disturbing" really help us understand that she is not on board with all of this dirt. Why might so much dirt be "disturbing?" We could understand all of the grime being gross or disgusting, but "disturbing" is a more intense kind of description.
  • Line 5 is our first glimpse into what we would normally consider "poetic description." Our speaker is trying to describe the black, slightly see-through and shiny qualities oil has.

Line 6

Be careful with that match!

  • Well now here's a reason to be upset about all the grime: the place is so greased up that merely lighting a match could set the whole place on fire. 
  • This line is playful, but it's also a little bit interactive. Who is the speaker addressing? Us? Are any of us are actually there at the filling station with the speaker? She certainly places us there for a brief instant. 
  • So far the speaker finds the filling station to be small, filthy, and even dangerous. 
  • Notice there is also another exclamation point at the end of this line. These suckers don't happen everyday in poetry. They are on the rarer side. So popping two into the first stanza sure packs a punch. 
  • What do you think this exclamation point does here? How does it make us feel? Desperate? Scared? Maybe even a bit goofy?
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