Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station": Word Choices, Sounds, and Silences

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

--Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979

I've always been struck by Bishop's craft expertise in her work, and "Filling Station" typifies her attention to not only what a poem means but how a poem means something.

For instance, most of us would probably not begin a poem with the exclamation "Oh": Bad poems often start with such ohs that signal to the reader the speaker's emotional and possibly spiritual state: "I'm in a state of rare sensitivity; I've reached the sublime and I want you to be ready for my oracular exhortations." But Bishop's use of "Oh" is quite the contrary: the speaker is a snob whose initial reaction to the scene at hand is one of disgust. Consequently, Bishop's word choice from the very first phoneme is an apt one. And, luckily for the poem and for us, the term "filling station" was a commonplace during Bishop's and even during my childhood; "gas station" wouldn't have the same effect that "filling station" can and will have in the poem. (And I'm old enough to remember that Exxon was once Esso: the penultimate trope in the last stanza wouldn't have the same soothing effect with the term Exxon.)

And I love how Bishop repeats various sounds for evocative reinforcement of the speaker's experience: Oh, oil-soaked, oil-permeated, and over-all echo the first utterance so that when a reader actually reads aloud the poem, the vowels harp upon each other just as popular songs dig into a listener's cognitive awareness that can't literally be defined but can be mouthed over and over. Music has that effect: certain vibrations in the air hit the eardrums and work their magic. (Was it William Carlos Williams who said that prose is written to be read whereas poetry is written to be heard?)

Such repetitions of words and sounds seamlessly work throughout the poem, and Bishop also utilizes modifiers in a masterly manner. For example, in addition to the hyphenated adjectives, she expertly inserts adjectives that some MFA graduates would never do (a certain "school" in the Midwest comes to my mind): the sons are "quick," "saucy," and "greasy"; the station is "quite thoroughly" dirty; the wickerwork is "crushed" and "grease-impregnated"; the doily is "big" and "dim"; the begonia (one of my favorite plant names) is "big" and "hirsute"; the automobiles are "high-strung." One might associate such adjective usage with Southern poets like Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, but, in fact, Bishop's contemporaries were not shy of modifiers: Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead and John Berryman's Dream Songs have a multitude of modifiers that, if deleted, would be similar to taking out certain notes in Muddy Waters' music or limiting Georgia O'Keefe's palette to just blues and greens. Does this mean one should go adjective and adverb crazy? Of course not, but Bishop's craft awareness illustrates what's possible when one uses great care when writing and revising one's work.

And another craft element that's noticeable in Bishop's poetry is her awareness of the length of her utterances and where the pauses, the silences, occur. Look at the third stanza: She starts with a heavily end-stopped line; the second line has a natural caesura at the end; the third line has a medial caesura but ends with a run-on which lends a greater emphasis to the beginning of the fourth line; within the fourth line, a ever so soft caesura occurs after "crushed" and then the line utilizes enjambment like the previous one; the fifth line is heavily end-stopped; the sixth line is enjambed; the seventh line, like the third line, has a medial caesura. Bishop's utterances combine repetition and variation, the corrective push and pull of well-crafted lines; as Donald Hall notes, such tension is similar to what corrects one's teeth: "Damn braces."

Craft in the hands of someone like Bishop can make us all the more appreciative of what's possible when one hammers away until the result shimmers and eternally breathes.


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