I keep muttering “Somebody loves us all.” It’s the last line of “Filling Station,” one of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems, and also the title of Damien Wilkins’ latest novel, a terrific book Chris and I have been reading. I recently pored through Bishop’s Collected Poems, too, to prepare for a seminar on her work. That’s probably why I keep chanting those words. It’s not an obscure blogger’s desperate mantra or anything.
My ten-year-old called me on it. “What does that mean anyway? Does that mean God?” In retrospect, his tone was probably suspicious. He’s a rationalist.
Well, it could refer to God, I said, and then I told him about Bishop’s poem. There’s a gas station, an Esso station, which is an old name for Exxon. It’s run by a family, and although it’s very dirty there are signs that someone has tried to brighten the place up—wicker furniture out front, a doily, a hairy begonia. That’s a flower, I said. The poem ends: “ESSO—SO—SO— / Somebody loves us all.” I babbled on that the line is mysterious, that it could signify just a wish for love, but that the “somebody” might also be someone in the family, expressing her devotion through begonias, as people do. Bishop lost both of her parents when she was very little, I finished, a little breathless, and took another bite of toast. I looked at my son’s freckled nose and pointy chin, thought about how beautiful he is, and reached over to trim the bruised bit off his apple.
He looked back at me fondly and said, “Esso—so—so stupid.”
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