C.K. Doreski

C.K. Doreski: On "The Filling Station"

"Filling Station" [QT] offers a place to begin to delineate the problems of integrating unfamiliar or unavailable social and cultural milieus. A fussy feminine voice plots the scene. The poem moves from critique—"Oh, but it is dirty!"—to affirmation— "Somebody loves us all" without losing tone, as if to assert, despite its prissiness, its emotional range. Both assertions depend on the exaggeratedly finical persona-voice for recognition and clarification of the relationship between language-subject and object. The clarity of revelation requires the acceptance of the authority of this somewhat flighty voice. The first stanza encounters this diminutive, dirty filling station with a tone of amused disgust. This unctuous station offers no clean surface on which to step, sit, or lean. The caretaker-narrator worries about the public welfare in this place of discarded lubricants. The place seems deserted, vaguely disturbing, alien, provincial. The second stanza, however, introduces, or at least recognizes, the filling station family. Bishop had to delineate the oily surroundings before she could populate the station with presences that derive their identity in part from the obscuring power of the dirt and grease. Father in a "dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit" and his "several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" compose the tribe. To underscore the masculine disarray, Bishop compresses judgment with depiction: "it's a family filling station, / all quite thoroughly dirty." The work environment begs for the tidying presence of a woman, a wife, or a mother. The station itself appears to be a resting place for men and dogs: the wicker furniture ("crushed and grease- / impregnated" and with a "dirty dog") offers that residential look. Bishop allows "grease-" to teeter at the end of the line, isolating and heightening the vaguely sexual connotations of "impregnated." The descriptively self-contained stanzas of "Filling Station" cause it to resemble "Sestina" more than any other Bishop poem. The theatrical positioning of props and people echoes the dominant image patterns of the piece. At one step removed, we glimpse the touches of those present: "Some comic books provide / the only note of color"—and perhaps someone absent: "They [the comic books] lie / upon a big dim doily / draping a taboret / (part of the set), beside / a big hirsute begonia." Surely there can be no sense of intellectual presence, or for that matter, even craft. Bishop sees neither mind nor hand at work in the debris. Upon what then does the poem turn? Perhaps because of the orchestrating falsetto voice, the poem depends upon noting the absence of an actual feminine presence. It asks us to sense the former presence, then to miss, the decorator of the filling station. This note of nostalgia exploits conventional expectations: Domestic scenes—it is now clear that domesticity is the standard to which the narrator has held this scene—require a woman, a wife, a mother here, even as "Sestina" does. A rhetorical cascade of questions suggests the extent of the narrator's tentatively withheld knowledge: 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.) The selective questioning and insider's conjectures (further emphasized by the parachesis of "gray crochet") link factual and speculative registers of awareness. The poem challenges the reader to offer any explanation other than a woman's sometimes presence. No longer the harsh ds of the beginning stanzas, the calming, lullaby-like ws and ss of the oil cans sound a peaceful and reconciling note as the poem drifts to a vaguely humorous and reassuring conclusion: [lines 34-41] There is an understood presence, a nurturing and artistic overseer to this otherwise casual business. It is on the care and the arrangement of objects that survival depends. The soft utterances of the oil cans (pouring oil on the world's troubled waters) gently mock and soothe the high-strung automobiles that so cruelly embody the idea of cultural and social progress, a progress that has soiled this microcosm without entirely civilizing it.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

C.K. Doreski: On "The Man-Moth"

Early ("Man-Moth") and late ("Pink Dog") examples of her personae of exile illustrate her fascination with extreme isolation, with freaks and outcasts. Though their admittedly distorted perspectives are convincing, they engender no sense of kinship, nor are they intended to. Their purpose is to engender languages of extremity, and to plot with their grotesque narratives the border beyond which the psyche and language no longer appear to coincide.

Robert Lowell has most clearly described the kind of difference found in Bishop's exile poems. When discussing the uniqueness of "The Man-Moth" [NS] he said:

In Elizabeth Bishop's "Man-Moth" a whole new world is gotten out and you don't know what will come after any one line. It's exploring. And it's as original as Kafka. She's gotten a world, not just a way of writing. She seldom writes a poem that doesn't have the exploring quality.

The otherworldliness of "The Man-Moth" beckons; like the shadows of German Expressionist films, it looms uncomfortably near enough to darken the familiar world. The man-moth is an oddly plausible figure, drawn to the surface from tunnels and nightmares of the ordinary imagination. The "whole new world" he occupies depends upon negatives or opposites: shadow and light, verticals and horizontals, forward and backward, sun and moon. The shadowy mirror-images (unlike the playful distortions of "The Gentleman of Shalott") challenge his grip on the surface of the earth just as they challenge the ordinary viewer to define a comfortable self-image, a grip on sanity.

Yet even this world of negatives and opposites has limits and rules. The Man-Moth's discomfort during this "visit to the surface" is palpable. The nature of his other life, underground, remains undetermined; but unlike Crusoe this alien shares, somewhat unwillingly, what humanity he contains:

        If you catch him,  hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil,  an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens  as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids  one tear, his only possession, like the bee’s sting, slips.  Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention  he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,  cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

The Man-Moth's humanity reveals itself only in the terms of its subterranean world, the "entire night" of its eye, its single tear.

Bishop conjures similarly self-inhibited spirits throughout her writing. For example, in "Gwendolyn" part of the child's self- definition required definition of her opposites, in somewhat the way the adult process of self-discovery might entail an encounter with an opposite in the form of a Man-Moth-like creature. Bishop's larger concern is to generate a language of sufficient latitude to permit observation of these intersections of like and unlike. The actions of Crusoe occur within a carefully depicted emotional frame, but the Man-Moth embodies the unknown or the unconscious, "an entire night in itself." In the end, his surfacing is an incomplete gesture, an attempt to reach out to others that is partially negated by his unwillingness to make a gift of his emotional self. The truncated first lines of these stanzas indicate how very tentative this gesture really is. Though the images are tethered to the knowable world, the poem heightens the contrast between shadow and light, the strangeness of ordinary landscapes, and the potential oddities of perspective. Bishop has dramatized the way the ordinary daylight world forcibly persuades the outsider to conform:

he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage  to push his small head through that round clean opening  and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the          light.

The rather grim simile—''as from a tube"—underscores the solitary nature of his journey; society has no place for him, no means of accommodating such a creature. The compactness of his world, the tension of his stance, in these lines is oppressive. The density of the stanzas, the longish lines dominated by monosyllables, suggest what the Man-Moth must penetrate. These contrasting worlds of shadow and light, underground and surface seem mutually exclusive, beyond interpretation or knowledge. The ordinary world has broken down into cubist planes of darkness and reflected light, while the poet-observer stands to one side, manipulating those reflections in the terms of self-definition.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP