Study Guide

Filling Station

Filling Station Summary

The speaker's got her spy goggles on. She's looking at a cruddy old gas station, and notes just about every detail: the oil-soaked surfaces, the proprietor in ill-fitting coveralls, his greasy sons helping him out. She notes the cement porch, a wicker sofa, and a mangy-looking dog, which makes her think these folks live at the gas station. After all, there are comic books lying near the begonias.

As she wonders about these little details, she realizes that though this place may be a bit of a dump, it's also well cared for in its own, sad kind of way. This leads her to the poem's heartening conclusion, that "somebody loves us all."

  • Stanza 1

    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?
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-9

    Father wears a dirty,
    oil-soaked monkey suit
    that cuts him under the arms,

    • The speaker doesn't say "the" father, but "father." This line, for a moment, throws a wrench in our understanding of what's going on here. We figured the speaker was an outsider. Are we wrong? It seems like she could be talking about her very own father here.
    • "Monkey suit" is a nickname for a formal suit (it's not a compliment). This one is super-dirty, and doesn't fit him well at all. 
    • Our speaker uses the description "oil-soaked" in the first stanza to describe the filling station. She's using it again to describe the people in the filling station.
    • This oil has really gotten into every nook and cranny of this place. 
    • The fact that the father's suit is dirty and doesn't fit well maybe means he's poor and can't afford a better one. The way that it "cuts him under the arms," makes us flinch a little. Frankly, the suit sounds more than a little uncomfortable, and we can't help but pity the man who wears it. He sounds awkward and unkempt.

    Lines 10-11

    and several quick and saucy
    and greasy sons assist him

    • Our question about the father is cleared up. The speaker is not part of the filling station family; she is an outsider like we originally thought, and now she's describing the whole family.
    • The sons are quick and saucy. Saucy means many different things: flippant, or bold and lively, or sexually suggestive. It's probably safe to apply any and all of these definitions of "saucy" to these sons. 
    • They're helping the father though, so it seems they're probably employees of the filling station. 
    • Instead of describing these sons as "oil-soaked," our speaker simply describes them as "greasy." Sure, they probably are covered in oil, but it also helps us understand what kind of folks these sons are. Remember the greasers from Grease?

    Lines 12-13

    (it's a family filling station),
    all quite thoroughly dirty.

    • Confirmed. It's a family-run station. 
    • Take note of those parentheses, too. Parentheses, like exclamation points, are also on the rarer side in poetry. They make it feel like a side-comment or like the speaker's voice is lowering a bit.
    • In this case, the speaker is using the parentheses to indicate that she's summing up what we know so far. This is a family run gas station and—oh, that's right—it's dirty.
    • Line 13 is sneakier than you might originally think. It's probably referring the station again as being super-dirty, but it very likely refers to the family, too. They, like the filling station, are all dirtied up.
    • That means we've got another dose of judgment from the speaker. Dirty place and a dirty family. Why do you think she continues to harp on how dirty everything is? How do the repetitions of "dirty" and "oil-soaked" so far in the poem make us feel?
  • Stanza 3

    Line 14

    Do they live in the station? 

    • This line gives us a good reminder of the speaker's relationship to the station and its family. She's an outsider, looking in on these people. She's as in the dark as we are.
    • So she's got to do a bit of speculating here. Notice we have a question mark to add to our collection of cool punctuation. Our speaker addresses us in a way that makes us feel like we are right there with her (kind of like the very first line of the poem), and she's asking us to make some guesses right along with her.
    • By saying "they" the speaker excludes herself from them. There's no "we" relationship here. 
    • This line also shows us how curious the speaker is. The poem has already gone through great lengths to highlight the filthiness of the place, and now it's taking a small turn to the interest in the people who populate the filling station. 
    • But what's prompting her to ask this question in the first place?

    Lines 15-16

    It has a cement porch
    behind the pumps, and on it

    • Here we are peeking into the lives of the people who run the filling station. 
    • It turns out the speaker has guessed that these folks live at the station based on a few details she's spied with her Nancy Drew style sleuthing skills.
    • There's a porch—a sure sign of life outside of work. Porches are for chilling out and chatting with friends and family in the outside air. It's a cement porch though, which isn't exactly the coziest, but it might help cool things off when it gets really hot.
    • In these two lines, our speaker shows us how the family's work life ("the pumps") is connected and tied to the home life ("a cement porch"). The balance between work life and home life seems important in this poem, so let's pay attention and see if it comes up again.

    Lines 17-18

    a set of crushed and grease-
    impregnated wickerwork;

    • On that porch is a set of dirty, grimy, greasy wicker furniture.
    • Here's another interesting mash up of something homey and something greasy and gross. Wicker furniture definitely rings "home sweet home," but in this case it's all grimed up, to the point that we're not even sure we'd want to sit on it. 
    • The poem is collecting evidence of home life, but so far it doesn't look quite like the Brady Bunch lives there. 
    • "Grease-impregnated" is yet another way of describing just how dirty things are. The phrase literally means full of grease, but the word "impregnated" makes us think of babies, and babies make us think of family. Slick moves, Liz.
    • We also feel slightly uncomfortable thinking of babies (which are soft and smell nice) in a world as grimy as this. It seems like an odd place for family living.

    Lines 19-20

    on the wicker sofa
    a dirty dog, quite comfy.

    • Here we get more specifics about the filling station and the family: they own a dog. Aw, how domestic.
    • The dog, of course, is dirty too. No surprise there. 
    • Dogs are another sign of home and comfort. And Bishop mentions that he's comfortable, which is a nice little break from all the uncomfortable grit.
    • It seems that even though this domestic scene is very dirty, it's comfortable being dirty. It's okay with itself.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 21-23

    Some comic books provide
    the only note of color—
    of a certain color. They lie

    • Our speaker goes back to critical mode. Instead of, say, flowers adding color to this greasy scene, the speaker observes that comic books are the only colorful things here. 
    • When she writes "a certain color," she may as well be saying, "it's kind of colorful, but not really." 
    • She might also be implying that it's easy to tell what color these comic books are for sure, but everything else is so covered in grease that it's hard to tell what color things were originally. So compared to that of the other stuff at the station, the color of these comic books is certain.
    • Comic books might also be a tiny dig at these people, by implying that they aren't perhaps "serious" readers. They aren't reading novels or newspapers.

    Lines 24-25

    upon a big dim doily
    draping a taboret

    • A taboret is a small, portable table. Think of it as a cabinet or storage cart, like this one.
    • And a doily is a decorative piece of lacey fabric that's typically draped over a table. They're very girly (not to make sweeping generalizations or anything), with intricate, white lace work. 
    • So the comic books are lying on this dim (notice: not colorful) doily on a small worktable in an interesting mash-up of the masculine and feminine. We've seen the men in this family, but where's the lady? Who draped the doily over the table?
    • Also, we can't help but notice that doily rhymes with oily, and we've seen an awful lot of oil in this poem. Once again, Bishop is drawing a connection between work life and home life, only this time she's using rhyme to do it.

    Lines 26-27

    (part of the set), beside
    a big hirsute begonia.

    • The taboret is part of the wicker furniture set, because we know that you were just dying for that detail.
    • "Hirsute" means hairy or bushy. So this table with the comic books is beside a bushy begonia plant.
    • Begonias usually have very bright flowers. Here's a sign of life amongst all this grime! But why did our speaker tell us that the comic books were the "only note of color" in this scene? Maybe the begonias aren't in bloom? That's a bummer.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 28-30

    Why the extraneous plant?
    Why the taboret?
    Why, oh why, the doily?

    • Whoa. It's a veritable question explosion up in here as our speaker asks why these three things are present in the scene?
    • Before we investigate what's behind these questions, let's figure out what all three of these things have in common. They are all indicators that this place, despite its filth, is a home. The plant, the taboret, and the doily are all nice accents meant to make a place homey and nice. They're the kind of things a lady of the house might decorate with.
    • So why the "why"? Bishop is asking why bother with all of these nice things in such a filthy dump? The "why" really means, "what's the point?" 
    • The repetition of "why" makes us feel like the speaker is really worked up.
    • But there's another angle here, too. The "why" could be wondering how these things got there. Who put them there? Surely it wasn't the grimy proprietor and his greasy sons.

    Lines 31-33

    (Embroidered in daisy stitch
    with marguerites, I think,
    and heavy with gray crochet.)

    • It's vocab time, Shmoopers: marguerites = daisy-like flowers. And crochet = yarn stitched into fabric to make a pattern. 
    • Everything within the parentheses refers to the doily, which means the speaker is telling us that the doily was embroidered to look like flowers. She's really honing in on the small stuff here.
    • So while the speaker thinks, "what's the point?", she still goes on to observe with great detail what this little doily looks like.
      It's becoming more obvious that, although the speaker doesn't understand this makeshift, dirty filling station home, she is captivated by it, and maybe even a little charmed by it. It's not all bad.
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 34-35

    Somebody embroidered the doily.
    Somebody waters the plant,

    • It seems like our speaker is being overly obvious here. Duh, somebody embroidered the doily, or it wouldn't have a flower pattern on it. Duh, somebody waters the plant, or it wouldn't be alive.
    • But it's not so much about stating the obvious as it is about the speaker being in awe that people are actually taking care of this dirty place. The repetition of "somebody" makes us really feel the speaker's amazement and emotion, as if she's emphasizing each word as she speaks.
    • What she's actually doing, though, is bringing all of these seemingly inanimate objects to life, by mentioning that they've had human contact and care. 
    • This brings us back to the home thing that's been reappearing in this poem. Our speaker has spent the better part of the poem describing the things in this place, but the people, not the things, make a home; now, in the second to last stanza, she's bringing our focus back to human beings. 
    • Because as dirty as this station may be, there are still human beings living in it, and that's what matters most.

    Lines 36-37

    or oils it, maybe. Somebody
    arranges the rows of cans

    • In line 36 she's still poking fun at the greasiness of the place. We know, of course that the plant isn't oiled because it's alive. But this line is here to remind us of how grimy the whole scene is. 
    • Still, there's an acknowledgement of care here. The speaker knows that as gross as this place is, it's lived in and loved.
    • She continues on with this "somebody" repetition. Even the rows of oil cans take on a personal importance toward the end of the poem. Stay tuned to see why.

    Lines 23-39

    so that they softly say:

    • The image of these lines is that of oil cans all lined up in a row. You can read the full label on the first one: ESSO. But the other cans' labels are obscured by the cans next to them, so the ES half of the logo is cut off, leaving only SO. 
    • In a poem without much figurative language, the imagery and metaphor in this line pack a big punch. We learn that the cans are speaking, which is a classic example of personification.
    • And the visual image is mixed with an auditory one, resulting in a weird kind of synesthesia here. We're looking at the cans, but we're hearing them, too. 
    • And check out that adverb: softly. Well, that's a surprise. This poem started out on a pretty harsh and critical note. Now it seems like the speaker has a "soft" spot for this place. 
    • The sound the cans make is a very soft, whisper-like, and soothing sound. This filling station is starting to seem like a cozy place, rather than a depressing one. Those cans are straight up welcoming.

    Lines 40-41

    to high-strung automobiles.
    Somebody loves us all.

    • Line 40 is super-clever, and classic sneaky Bishop. Oil literally lubricates car engines, but generally being high strung isn't their problem. That word makes us think of uptight people who need to loosen up—like, maybe, the speaker at the beginning of the poem. Here, our speaker is saying that this little whispering, "esso-so-so" sound soothes the cars. 
    • This moment of personification gives the filling station some personal significance. It has an important job (soothing engines).
    • So while this may just be a grimy gas station, it's also a place of relief, and a necessary one at that. 
    • The last line seems to come out of nowhere. What does oil fixing rusty engines have to do with love? 
    • Well, we've been tracking this whole human/family element for a while, and we think the gist here is that somebody cares enough to put furniture on the porch, enough to place a doily down, and to water the plant. They even care enough to arrange the oilcans in such a way that they soothe drivers and cars. 
    • But who is this person? Based on these details, it seems like that it's an off screen woman—maybe the man's wife and the sons' mother? Wherever she is, its clear that she has contributed a lot to this home. And if she's gone for good, her memory certainly lingers. 
    • And that presence reminds the speaker that there's someone like that for everyone. Someone's out there to take care of us all—even if we're living in grimy gas stations.
    • Yep, even in this grimy filling station, there seems to be a happy home, and ultimately, enough love to go around.