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."
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...