Study Guide

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder,
    Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
    From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country." (1-3)

    The speaker tells us that the undecoded message in quotation marks is "the first" of several. But we never are told what any of the other messages are. Where's the second, or the third? The poem all but announces that it's a puzzle that can't be solved. A tangram is a Chinese puzzle with seven pieces, and a sestina is a poem with seven stanzas – see what we're getting at? You might want to consider whether Popeye is sending the messages.

    And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
    "M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out in thunder
    Today, and it shall be as you wish." (7-9)

    How does Wimpy know the Sea Hag's thoughts before she even opens her shriveled mouth to speak? Maybe he has telepathy or is just really good at ready body language. Also, did you expect him to sound like a character from a British period drama? Ashbery is known for mixing different kinds of social speech.

    But Swee'pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. "Thunder
    And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
    Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched." (16-18)

    This poem opens up all kinds of questions at the most basic level that can't be answered. For example, who wrote this note? Was it poor baby Swee'pea? We have a sneaking suspicion that Popeye might be responsible. We learn that Popeye has been exiled and is responsible for the thunder, so it would make sense for him to say that "thunder and tears" are of no use and the apartment exists only in his memory. Also, is this note another "undecoded message"?

    "I have news!" she gasped. "Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
    One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
    And all that it contains, myself and spinach
    In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
    At his own astonished becoming (20-24)

    Olive's language combines several different kinds of speech, from the childish enjoyment of words ("musty gusty") to difficult philosophical reflections ("his own astonished becoming"). From quotes like this, you can see why Ashbery is often considered a postmodern or experimental writer.

    She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country." (28)

    Right after delivering her "news," which is full of complicated phrases and lots of adjectives, Olive makes this matter-of-fact statement. How can this quote be the same person speaking?

    Popeye chuckled and scratched
    His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country. (38-39)

    Popeye is the only character who does not speak in the poem – unless you think that the undecoded messages were written by his hand. But the final line paraphrases his thoughts of contentment. He's not ecstatic about the country, but he finds it "pleasant." Also, the crudeness of Popeye scratching his balls is almost like a response to the slightly pretentious, upper middle-class tone of the rest of the poem.

  • The Home

    Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How pleasant
    To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
    Her cleft chin's solitary hair. (4-6)

    The Sea Hag calls Popeye's apartment "the home of Popeye" in Spanish, making it sound like a luxury villa. But we already know it's a cramped shoebox of a place. The Sea Hag's use of Spanish seems like a sign of sophistication. She comes off as very pampered and domestic, which runs totally against her name. Shouldn't she be living in a cave somewhere?

    "Thunder
    And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
    Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched." (16-18)

    The author of the note pinned to Swee'pea's bib remains unknown, but it could be Popeye or his duplicate father, whose name we never tire of repeating: Poopdeck Pappy. The note seems to imply that "thunder and tears" would somehow help Popeye get his apartment back after being exiled by his father. But the word "Henceforth" reads like a decree. It means "from now on," like when you say to one of your siblings; "From now on, stay out of my room!"

    Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
    Her long thigh. "I have news!" she gasped. "Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
    One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
    And all that it contains, myself and spinach
    In particular (19-23)

    In the cartoon series, Popeye's father was a lazy, good-for-nothing man. Ashbery spices up the story between Popeye and his son. His father plans to have him exiled to the country because he was jealous of the two truly valuable things in the apartment: Olive and spinach. The home is the battleground where this drama plays out. "Wizened," by the way, doesn't mean "wise" – it means wrinkled or old looking.

    Minute at first, the thunder

    Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
    The color of spinach. (36-38)

    The outside world invades the apartment in the form of green thunder. But the thunder is "domesticated" or tamed. You might compare it to one of those miniature clouds that hangs over the head of one particularly unlucky cartoon character, while it's sunny everywhere else. The thunder is fitted for a tiny urban apartment.

  • Dissatisfaction

    The apartment
    Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant
    Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country." (10-12)

    The characters sense that the apartment feels cramped and confining. Wimpy worries, "Is this it?" He wants to be inspired and to travel through the galaxy, at least metaphorically. We don't know how else to describe his dissatisfaction other than to say that he wants something "more" than what the apartment has to offer.

    But Swee'pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. "Thunder
    And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
    Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched." (16-18)

    Swee'pea's expression is "morose," or depressed. We're inclined to think that his expression has something to do with the note pinned to his chest, announcing that Popeye's apartment now belongs to the past. But it's hard to make firm logical connections between different parts of the poem. The poem is filled with loose associations or non sequitors, events that don't seem to follow from what came before.

    rupturing the pleasant

    Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
    Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
    Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder." (24-27)

    "Pleasant" is one of the six words that is repeated throughout the sestina. "Pleasant" is a very weak word for a happiness that is only momentary. The characters in the poem lived pleasant lives before, but now they suddenly find themselves in the dark and surrounded by thunder. What's more, they have lost the beauty of nature.

    "Actually it's quite pleasant
    Here," thought the Sea Hag. "If this is all we need fear from spinach
    Then I don't mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over"--she scratched
    One dug pensively--"but Wimpy is such a country
    Bumpkin, always burping like that." (32-36)

    Once Olive and Swee'pea leave the apartment, the Sea Hag begins to relax and finds the apartment more "pleasant" than she had before. She isn't as worried about what kind of trouble Popeye will stir up under the influence of his beloved spinach. She's not thrilled about the thunder, but she'll deal...worse things have happened. Nonetheless, she can always find something to complain about, like Wimpy's burping.

    Popeye chuckled and scratched
    His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country. (38-39)

    All the other characters are restrained by their proper middle-class attitudes, and only Popeye feels comfortable in his own skin. We weren't expecting Popeye to look so happy after Olive's story about being exiled by his father. He has ample grounds for dissatisfaction, but instead he expresses a child-like contentment with the world. Because he is "unthought of" (2), he doesn't have to worry about being watched or judged by the likes of the Sea Hag.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape (Title)

    The title of the poem is a parody of the title of a landscape painting. European painters often painted scenes of natural beauty in which nature is tamed and domesticated for human use. Unlike a city, the agricultural landscape is not overpowered by human activity. The title presents an old-fashioned view of nature.

    "Popeye sits in thunder,
    Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
    From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country." (1-3)

    The first stanza sets up a contrast between Popeye, who sits in some unspecified "country," and a small, cramped apartment. Apartments are associated with urban life. People in the city don't think about what is going on in the country, and Popeye is "unthought of."

    Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
    Her long thigh. (19-20)

    Isn't there a 1980s movie about killer flowers? Seriously, who gets injured by flower petals? Olive's scratching is a sign of how humans and nature don't quite get along in this poem.

    No more shall pleasant
    Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
    Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder." (25-27)

    Olive's description of being "refreshed" by natural beauty comes as a surprise. As far as we can tell, these characters spend most of their time lounging around and eating spinach. For some reason, Popeye's thunder has crowded out those parts of nature that once gave them pleasure. "Scratched tree-trunks and mossy foliage" sounds like an image out of a landscape painting.

    Minute at first, the thunder

    Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
    The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
    His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country. (36-39)

    Thunder and lightning are one of the most spectacular displays that nature has to offer. And green, spinach-colored lightning sounds especially awesome. But the lightning that fills the apartment is tamed and brought down to human scale. The image shows how humans have the power to alter their own perception of nature.

  • Transformation

    The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder,
    Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
    From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country. (1-3)

    The "emergence" of a Chinese puzzle called a tangram is the first transformation in the poem. The image of a "country" seems almost to come in through the window, past the curtains. The poem is like a half-completed transformation, because the messages are never decoded, the puzzle never solved.

    The apartment
    Seemed to grow smaller. (10-11)

    This sentence marks the start of the middle section of the poem, when all the characters begin to voice their gripes and dissatisfactions. Once the site of a pleasant vacation, the apartment becomes cramped and thunder-filled.

    "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
    Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched." (17-18)

    Swee'pea's note announces – out of the blue – that things will never be the same. Thunder and tears have failed to achieve something, and now the apartment is a space that people can only "remember." It doesn't matter what state the apartment is in anymore.

    heaves bolts of loving thunder
    At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

    Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
    Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
    Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder. (23-27)

    After the reading of Swee'pea's note, Olive comes to announce her news. She, too, remarks that things will never be the same. Sunshine and green, growing things have transformed into "immaculate" or perfect darkness that is filled with thunder. The orderly sequence of the "arpeggio" of years has been disturbed forever. But, in that case, why do none of the characters seem particularly upset?

    But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
    Succumbed to a strange new hush. "Actually it's quite pleasant
    Here," thought the Sea Hag. "If this is all we need fear from spinach
    Then I don't mind so much." (32-34)

    Once Olive leaves to take Swee'pea to the country, the apartment returns to a state of relative normalcy. The Sea Hag enjoys the peace and quiet, and apparently she doesn't mind the whole world-turned-to-darkness thing, either. The Sea Hag is the most complacent character in the poem.