Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape Summary
The speaker reads a secret message that hasn't been decoded yet. The message begins telling a story about Popeye, the cartoon sailor who always saves the day after eating a huge can of spinach. Popeye is sitting in a thunderstorm somewhere in the country, and nobody is thinking about him. Meanwhile, Popeye's friend, the Sea Hag, is sitting in Popeye's apartment with Wimpy. Both are characters from the Popeye television show. They are enjoying a vacation.
Thank goodness: Wimpy has brought the spinach – Popeye's favorite food. The party can begin. Except they sound very bored. They want to be inspired!
As Wimpy opens a can of spinach, Swee'pea, the baby from the Popeye cartoon, enters the apartment. He looks sad and has an unhappy note pinned to his bib.
Olive, a.k.a. Olive Oyl, enters the apartment through a window. She jumps over a flowerbed, and the geraniums scratch one of her long, skinny legs. She declares that she has news about Popeye. Apparently, Popeye was forced to flee the country because of some scheme of his father's. But he wants to be inside his apartment with his love interest (Olive) and favorite food (spinach), so his solution to the problem is to hurl "bolts of loving thunder." Well, that explains the thunder, at least.
Olive starts delivering a philosophical speech – things will never be the same, she says – but she suddenly grabs Swee'pea, the baby, threatening to take him out to the country. That's where Popeye is – we think. The Sea Hag wants the baby to finish his spinach first.
Olive is gone with the baby before the Sea Hag can finish voicing her objection. The Sea Hag begins to enjoy the peace and quiet. She thinks there is not so much to fear from spinach, after all. She considers inviting another character over, Alice the Goon, but worries that Wimpy's behavior might be an embarrassment.
Popeye's thunder grows louder and fills the apartment. The thunder is green like spinach. Popeye laughs, scratches his balls, and thinks how nice it is to spend a day in the country.
The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country."
- The speaker or narrator of the poem is reading secret messages that have not been decoded yet. This opening tells us a very important thing: we're not supposed to understand what happens in the rest of the poem. If the message hasn't been decoded yet, how are we supposed to know what's really going on? This is kind of like Ashbery's way of saying, "I'm going to throw a lot of confusing stuff at you, but you don't have to worry too much about fitting it all together into a coherent story."
- So what are we supposed to worry about? It's a poem: the language, of course. Nonetheless, we'll try to help out as much as we can with the story.
- The poem concerns the Popeye cartoon series. Popeye has been featured in comic books and on television since 1929. He is a rough but kind-hearted sailor who talks out of the side of his mouth, smokes a pipe, and has outlandishly large forearm muscles. Seriously, those things are like balloons.
- Many of the Popeye cartoons concern the main character's attempt to rescue his love interest, a skinny woman named Olive Oyl (as in, "olive oil"), and fighting off various enemies and villains. Whenever things would start to look really bad for Popeye, he would manage to find a can of spinach, the key to his incredible strength. Immediately after eating spinach, Popeye could whoop anything that came across his path.
- This poem features several characters from the cartoon, but it isn't faithful to their cartoon personas, so you don't need to know any of the complicated back-story. But if you're interested, Popeye has his own website: www.popeye.com.
- So Popeye is sitting "in thunder." Is he sitting outside? In the clouds? Your guess is as good as ours. Nobody is thinking about him – he's "Unthought of."
- Meanwhile, there is an apartment. The apartment is so small that it's like a shoebox. The curtains have a bruised or angry color, or a "livid hue."
- Somehow, a puzzle emerges from the apartment. Maybe it flies through the window. The puzzle takes the form of a Chinese "tangram," an ancient game where you try to fit small shapes together into a larger shape. This tangram is shaped like a "country." We're thinking "country" could either mean a nation or a landscape.
- If you think about it, a tangram is a lot like an "undecoded" message. The small units fit together into a larger message or meaning.
- Also, this poem is a lot like a tangram. Tangrams have seven pieces, this poem has seven stanzas. So as readers, we're like people working on a puzzle or trying to figure out a secret code.
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. She remembered spinach
- The Sea Hag is hanging out in Popeye's apartment, even though Popeye himself doesn't seem to be there. Maybe he gave her the key.
- Interestingly, the Sea Hag is Popeye's arch enemy in the cartoon, but here they seem like old acquaintances. It would be like if the Roadrunner let Wile E. Coyote into his home after they had tried to kill each other all day. This poem imagines what it would be like if cartoon characters had regular social lives after hours.
- The Sea Hag sits on a green couch – the same color as Popeye's favorite food, spinach. She's on vacation and just wants to hang out.
- She mentions how nice it is to relax "en la casa de Popeye," which means "in Popeye's house" in Spanish. The Sea Hag might be a parody of the idle rich class.
- In the cartoon, the Sea Hag has a huge, hairy chin that juts out from her face. Her chin has a "cleft" or dimple, and this cleft has a hair sprouting out of it. It must be an itchy hair, because the Sea Hag feels the need to scratch it. This is some secret message, all right. She begins thinking about Popeye's beloved spinach...
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
- The poem introduces Wimpy, another character from the Popeye series. The Sea Hag wants to ask Wimpy if he bought any spinach. For these characters, spinach is the essential vacation food.
- Wimpy is a chubby, jolly man who wears a suit and hat and absolutely loves hamburgers. Popeye's official website, which we're beginning to suspect is a tad tongue-in-cheek, lists Wimpy's birthplace as "a hamburger joint in Ocean Park Pier, Calif." and his weight as "300 hamburgers."
Today, and it shall be as you wish."
- Before the Sea Hag can ask her question, Wimpy seems to read her mind. His answer, in roundabout terms, is yes, he did get the darned spinach.
- The poem gives us a little cartoon gossip. Are Wimpy and the Sea Hag...an item? If not, why does he call her "M'love"?
- Wimpy takes note of the thunder on the "plains" – the flat countryside – and replies, basically, "Your wish is my command."
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country."
- Hehe. Wimpy's hat makes us laugh. It has the shape of a thimble (check it out here). Wimpy scratches the part of his head under the hat.
- On a seemingly unrelated note, the already small apartment seems to get smaller. The tiny apartment contrasts with the large, wide, thunder-filled plains somewhere in the distance.
- Speaking of small, the cartoon characters seem to live surprisingly small, average lives. What happened to the explosions, the giant mallets, the people being tied to train tracks? They have been reduced to your average, run-of-the-mill American city dwellers.
- Wimpy is a very articulate and well-spoken fellow, but he's also dissatisfied. He puts his discontent into words. He worries that maybe there won't be a "pleasant inspiration" to take him to the "stars." Then he makes a cryptic reference: "For this is my country."
- We think Ashbery is quoting a patriotic song from 1940s, "This is My Country". The song goes: "I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,/ For this is my country to have and to hold."
- The use of such a patriotic lyric might be a hint from Ashbery that Wimpy's dissatisfaction is a typically American dissatisfaction. Ashbery seems to be saying that Americans have got everything they need – food, housing, good company – but still want something more, some kind of magic to feel inspired.
- Come to think of it, cartoons are often associated with a kind of American magic (think: Walt Disney). Hearing a cartoon character worry about being uninspired is ridiculous – and, perhaps, a sign of how plain and boring things have gotten.
Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
- Wimpy's anxiety reminds them of other dissatisfactions, like the fact that the country is cheaper than the city.
- It's a safe bet that the characters are in the city, because you don't find many apartments in the country. So they are having a kind of grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side moment.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in. "How pleasant!"
- Not that we were getting bored with plain old Wimpy and the Sea Hag, but thank goodness someone else showed up. It's Swee'pea, the baby from the cartoon, who "crept in" on all fours, as you might expect a baby would.
- Wimpy was just in the middle of opening a "number 2 can of spinach." Just as a number 2 pencil is your standard pencil, this sounds like your average, everyday spinach can. He opens the can "thoughtfully," even though it doesn't require a lot of thought to open a can of spinach.
- When Swee'pea enters, someone – either the Sea Hag or Wimpy, we think – exclaims, "How pleasant!"
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."
- Oh no, the baby is unhappy ("morose"), too?!
- Being a baby, Swee'pea can't talk, but he has a note attached to his bib. It reads like yet another "undecoded message." It says that thunder and tears have failed to accomplish their goal, so Popeye's apartment will be "but remembered space" – or a thing of the past – for whoever wrote the note. The apartment is either "toxic or salubrious" – that is, harmful or healthy; and either "whole or scratched" – that is, complete or damaged. It doesn't matter, anyhow – the apartment belongs to the past now.
- Who wrote the note? The most likely candidates are Swee'pea, Popeye, or one of Popeye's enemies.
- The language of the note is a bit pretentious-sounding. When Ashbery uses language like this, as he often does, it's hard to tell whether he's poking fun at something or whether he just likes the sound of the words. He enjoys throwing different kinds of language into a blender, so to speak.
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
- "Olive" – Popeye's love interest, Olive Oyl – jumps through the window. Or, rather, she "hurtles" over the flowerbed like an Olympic track star. But she doesn't make it through unscathed: her "long thigh" gets scratched by, of all things, a flower.
- Olive declares that she has news, but first she recaps the back-story that everyone in the room already knows: Popeye was forced to leave the country. In this case, we think she means "country" as in "nation."
- The image of Olive jumping through a window is hilarious, especially if you've seen an image of her. First, her legs are as skinny as twigs. Second, she wears a long, frumpy skirt. Third, she has on boots! She right up there with Marge Simpson in the list of most unlikely cartoon heroines.
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
- You'll only find phrases like "musty gusty evening" in an Ashbery poem – that's why we love 'em.
- Anyway, Olive continues telling the story of Popeye's exile. One windy night, he was forced to leave the country because of some scheme of his thought up by his wrinkly-looking ("wizened") father, who looks like Popeye's "duplicate," except older.
- In the cartoon series, Popeye's father really did look exactly like him; he was an unsavory character who liked to smoke a lot, and he was named – we're not joking, unfortunately – "Poopdeck Pappy." That's Poopdeck Pappy, folks.
- Here the structure of Olive's sentence gets complex. We think she means to say that Popeye's father was jealous of Popeye's apartment, what with its amazing stock of spinach and herself, Olive Oyl. Somehow he got Popeye booted from the country to keep his son from these things.
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
- Popeye, of course, is not happy about getting kicked out of his apartment...and the country. Where will he get spinach now? So he throws "bolts of loving thunder" from afar at what his life has become, "his own astonished becoming." The bolts are "loving," we assume, because he loves Olive.
- These lines are confusing, but the important thing to take away is that Popeye is the one creating the thunder. He is like Zeus, the Ancient Greek god who was thought to be responsible for throwing lightning bolts out of the sky. Popeye has god-like powers.
- The last line of the stanza is broken off in the middle: Popeye's lightning bolts have ruptured something pleasant, but to find out what it is we have to go to the next section...
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."
- The lines have ruptured the pleasant "arpeggio" of the years of their lives. In music, an arpeggio is a chord that is broken up and played in succession instead of all at once.
- Put simply, Olive and her friends have been living an easy, carefree life – like music – until now. For some mysterious reason, Popeye's thunder and perfect or "immaculate" darkness have taken the place of their beloved sunshine and the pretty trees and herbs. Popeye has made the world dark. Nothing will ever be the same again.
She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country."
"But you can't do that – he hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.
- After delivering a dramatic speech that could rival one of the wizard Gandalf's gloomy prophecies from The Lord of the Rings, Olive changes her tone completely. She grabs the baby, Swee'pea, and announces that she will take him to the country. The country, remember, is where Popeye and the thunder are. Things are cheaper there.
- The Sea Hag is none too pleased with Olive's plan. She wants Swee'pea to finish eating his spinach so he can grow up big and strong like Popeye.
- The Sea Hag, who has a paranoid streak, looks around the apartment, as if afraid of something.
But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush.
- We already know how quickly Olive can enter a room, so it's no surprise that she leaves before the Sea Hag can even finish her sentence. The apartment becomes quiet.
"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
- Now that the apartment is quiet again, the Sea Hag remembers how nice and "pleasant" it can be. She feels like she's on vacation again. She's not too worried about the negative consequences of Popeye's spinach. These consequences include the thunder and darkness from outside. She can live without the sunshine and "mossy foliage."
- The apartment is so pleasant, in fact, that she considers inviting her friend Alice the Goon over. The short story (and, believe us, there's a long story) on Alice the Goon is that she's one of the Sea Hag's henchmen, or henchwomen as the case may be.
One dug pensively – "but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that." Minute at first, the thunder
- This apartment seems to have a lice problem or something: everyone keeps scratching themselves. While the Sea Hag thinks about whether to invite Alice the Goon, she scratches one of her "dugs," a very unattractive word for breast that means, literally, "udder." (Shiver.)
- Turns out the Sea Hag can't invite Alice the Goon because she is worried that Wimpy will make a fool of himself. Whereas she, the Sea Hag, is a sophisticated city dweller, Wimpy is nothing but a bumpkin and keeps burping all the time. Maybe it's from all those hamburgers.
- The stanza ends with another broken-off sentence. The thunder, which started off softly...
Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach.
- The thunder, which started off softly, "soon filled the apartment." Maybe the Sea Hag did have something to fear, after all. Popeye is responsible for all this thunder.
- The thunder is "domestic," meaning it relates to the home or family. "Domestic" is an adjective that has probably never been applied to thunder before, but in this poem it makes sense: everything here feels tame and domestic. A huge, exciting natural phenomenon has been reduced to something that fits inside a small apartment.
- Moreover, this thunder is the color of spinach: green.
Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
- At last, we catch a glimpse of the man himself, the great Popeye! And what does he do to acknowledge his greatness? He laughs and then scratches his genitals. Not exactly out of character for a sailor, but for someone who can create thunder, we expected a bit more.
- Popeye must have missed the memo about how dark and stormy it has become inside the apartment: he's perfectly happy to "spend a day in the country."
- Nor is he very concerned about Olive's story about exile and family distress. He almost seems to live in a completely different world from the other characters. He has none of the dissatisfactions or concerns.
- Thus, the poem ends on a humorous, somewhat vulgar, completely unexpected note of peace and contentment. Does this ending make you say, "Genius!" or "I want my money back!" or something in between?