Oh, but It Is Translucent!

by Tina Blue
March 14, 2003

          The poem "Filling Station," by Elizabeth Bishop, describes an epiphany experienced in an unlikely place, a "little filling station" so dirty that it evokes from the poem's persona an initial reaction of shocked revulsion, "Oh, but it is dirty!" (1).

          But this initial recoil from the sheer dirtiness of the place is immediately mitigated by the next line, in which the persona refers to it as "this little filling station" (1), a phrase that sounds almost like an endearment, because the word "little" has connotations of cute and

          The filling station's dirtiness comes not from, well, dirt, but from the oil that has covered and seeped into everything, so that what she sees is "oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency" (3-5).  This dirt, unlike mere dirt dirt, carries a potentially explosive charge.  It is energy embodied, really, so that one truly must  "[b]e careful with that match!" (6). That she should find the "over-all / black translucency" (4-5) so disturbing is itself a bit disturbing.  At the very least it piques our interest.  Why "disturbing"?  Offhand, there is no particular reason to find it unusual, much less disturbing, that a film of oil might cover things in and around a gas station.  The anomalous insistence that the film of oil creates a disturbing image draws attention to the way that image is phrased, "a disturbing, over-all / black translucency." 

          Our attention aroused, we cannot help noticing that the word "translucency" is itself another anomaly, though a rather subtle one.  Translucence is not relevant unless there is a light source.  No one is concerned with how much light an object allows to pass if there is no light.  In a dark room, considerations of transparency, translucency, or opacity are simply beside the point.  What is this implied light source?  Where is it? Though implied, this question is not addressed, at least not immediately, and never quite directly.

          Perhaps because she has been "disturbed," her interest piqued, the persona begins to take a closer look at the filling station. She describes the man who runs the station with the assistance of his "several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" (10-11).  Oddly, though, she describes him not as "the father," but as "Father" (7).  The word is capitalized because it occurs at the beginning of the sentence, of course, but the way she uses it--as his "title" rather than as a mere noun--suggests that even if the word occurred in the middle of the sentence, it would still be capitalized.  Furthermore, she says "Father" the way one would refer to one's own father, not to the father of another family.  After all, if someone says "Father does this or that," we assume he is referring to what his own father does.

          That forces us to consider why she uses this form.  In what way might this father be "Father" to her?  Not biologically, that's certain.  But perhaps he is a generic or a symbolic father figure--a sort of Ur-father, even an Adamic figure.  Of course, at this point in the poem such an interpretation is a reach, but it is a possibility, and one that, as we shall eventually see, is consistent with other elements in the poem.

          The father's "monkey suit" (8) is the one-piece garment a mechanic wears.  His monkey suit is too small, though, and it "cuts him under the arms" (9).  The arms are a person's instruments of action, the tools he uses to act upon the world, to accomplish his intentions. A suit that cuts him under the arms thus restricts his movement and impedes his actions, reducing their efficacy.  But if this father is a generic or categorical "Father," then that monkey suit of his might also have more universal meanings.  Our bodies are, after all, primates, and if we think of ourselves as "souls" inhabiting the "meat machines" that are our bodies, then our bodies could properly be called "monkey suits" that we (meaning the "real" persons inside the mere bodies) "wear."  And to the degree that our bodies constrain our souls, as all philosophies and religions that believe in souls assume that they do, then they can be said to "cut us under the arms," just as the father's monkey suit does.

          His sons are many, and they are "quick" (another odd choice of words--one that reminds us of the biblical use of that word to refer to the living) and "saucy" (10).  The word "saucy" implies impertinence, but also a sort of admiration for the boldness of the ones so described.  The boys assist their father, implying family solidarity and perhaps also underscoring affection, and their liveliness suggests that they are committed to their work and enjoy it.  The persona seems to find them appealing, and that might explain her continued interest in the filling station and the life they might lead there.

          At this point the persona begins to wonder whether the family lives at the station.  Having raised the question, she notices details that suggest an answer:

                    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.

Apparently this is their home.  And though the furniture and the dog on the porch are also covered with grease, there is a cozy, homey quality to the scene.  The wickerwork is crushed, as if it has often been sat upon, and the dog, though dirty, is "quite comfy."  

          The "only note of color-- / of certain color" (22-23) is provided by "some comic books" (21).  The phrasing of this remark suggests that there are other colors to be seen, but that because of that "disturbing, over-all /black translucency" (4-5), the other colors in the scene are scarcely even discernible.  Only the comic books, with their bold, vivid primary colors, can "shine" through the obscuring veil of greasy dirt.  Perhaps a particularly discerning eye might notice the more subtle colors, but for most people, no color less obvious than those in a comic book would be apparent at all.

          If we were not aware from the beginning of the poem that the persona is a woman, her attention to the "big dim doily / draping a taboret" (24-25) and her knowledge, tentative as it is, that the doily's embroidered design is called a "daisy stitch / with marguerites" (31-32) would lead us to believe so.  Her attitude toward what she observes does seem more "female" than "male," at least in terms of traditional associations, and probably also in terms of what we know about male and female psychology generally. Her attention is on the family, their relationships, and their living arrangements, rather than on the business as business. Even that reference to "this little filling station"(2) sounds more like something a woman would say, as does her concern with the fact that this gas station is made so very dirty by its pervasive mantle of oil.

          In fact, this poems sounds as though it might have derived from an actual experience--i.e., from a time when the poet herself drove into a greasy little filling station and, observing closely as poets do, she overcame her initial recoil from the dirtiness of the place to pay close attention to the details of the scene and to speculate on what those details might suggest, not only about the family that ran the station but also about life and about the world in general.

          The details the poet-persona observes in this poem are incongruous enough to provoke questions: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" (28-30). Since this filling station seems, at least on the surface, to be an exclusively male domain, where only "Father" (7) and his many "quick and saucy / and greasy sons" (10-11) operate, where did all these little touches implying concern for comfort and even, however ineffectually, beauty come from?

          Being a woman, the persona knows the answer.  If you find a tuft of bear fur on a branch in the woods, and bear scat on the trail, then you know that a bear has passed that way.  And if you see a doily, "embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites" (31-32) and a flowering plant on a taboret, then you know a woman has been here, even if you cannot see her at the moment.  And that woman obviously is concerned for the comfort and well-being of the dirt-covered father and his greasy sons. 

          But to the persona it isn't just the father and his sons that the woman--his wife, their mother, we assume--seems to be concerned with. 
The fact that the rows of cans have been arranged so that, in her whimsical interpretation, "they softly say: / ESSO--SO--SO--SO / to high-strung automobiles" (38-40) implies someone whose concern is with the emotional well-being of all the motorists who stop by this little filling station.  Why the motorists?  Well, obviously automobiles are not really high-strung, as would be horses who need to be calmed by the gentle crooning of "so--so--so."  This is metonymy, the metaphorical reference to something by way of that which is associated with it.  It is the drivers, not their cars, that are nervous and skittish--stressed and anxious because of the difficulties of life in the world.  The notion that this mother takes care for everyone who stops by her filling station suggests to the persona the comforting idea that "Somebody loves us all" (41).

          But this "Somebody" seems not just to be any individual's mother, but "Mother," in keeping with the reference to "Father" earlier in the poem--i.e., some expansive, loving Presence that operates behind the gray, dirty veil of the mundane world.  If we can infer the existence of a loving woman from her signs in the unlikely venue of this dirty little filling station, might we not also infer the existence of a loving Presence even in the unlikely venue of this fallen world, which is, after all, not only literally a ball of dirt, but also the "family business," in the sense that it is the place where all human beings, the family of man, live and work--in biblical terms, earning their bread in the sweat of their brow.

          This implication leads us back to that "disturbing, over-all / black translucency" (3-4) and the light source implied by the choice of the term "translucency."  Like the colors that are imperceptible beneath the film of dirt and grease, unless they are comic book colors, brilliant and obvious even to the undiscerning eye, that light might well be invisible to those of us who, looking at the world see only that it is dirty, not that behind or beyond it lies a brilliance that would be revealed if only we were to shift our perspective and look a little more closely, more intensely and receptively.

          "Be careful with that match!" she warns, and properly so, because transcendent--might we even say divine?--energy lies everywhere, like the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur" 1), and at any moment "It will flame out" (Hopkins 2). 

          What is a filling station, after all?  It is a place where one goes to refuel.  The poet doesn't call this place a gas station, because she is refueling more than just her car here.  As a poet, she "refuels" her art by paying loving attention to the details of the world she inhabits, even if in some places it initially seems dirty and unappealing.  And as a human being, she refuels emotionally and spiritually with the evidence that no matter how "seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil" (Hopkins 6) our world might be, it is also marked by signs that "Somebody loves us all" (41).

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