Welcome to the wild world of contemporary poetry, which is often as much about the ways people use language as about how they act. Ashbery pokes fun at the reader's need to figure out what a poem "means" by making part of "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" an "undecoded message." The cartoon characters seem almost to talk in riddles, especially Olive and Wimpy. The poem blends many different kinds of speech together, from the childish to the pretentious.
The poem should be understood as nonsense and lacks a consistent narrative. This doesn't make it a bad poem.
"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" follows a favorite cartoon character back to his apartment. It's like MTV Cribs, cartoon-style. The only problem is that Popeye isn't home. Instead, one of his most notorious enemies is hanging out with a guy named Wimpy. Because these are cartoon characters, we might expect scenes of off-the-wall violence, but instead everyone is totally domestic. They have nothing better to do than sit on the couch and open can after can of spinach. The home protects and isolates the characters from the outside world.
The poem depicts the gradual domestication of nature until nature disappears altogether.
A thin layer of dissatisfaction hangs over "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," but it's so thin you might not even notice it. The complaints expressed by characters are either minor and nitpicky (things being cheaper in the country) or absurdly idealistic (wanting to be plunged to the stars with inspiration). If we had to play psychologist on these characters, we'd diagnose them with a serious case of boredom. The only character with a real reason to be upset – the exiled Popeye – is perfectly content.
The characters should be dissatisfied based on the objective facts of their situation, but they are incapable of being truly disturbed by anything.
When Olive tells the other characters that there won't be any more sunny days or mossy trees, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" expresses something the reader might have suspected all along: these characters are very isolated from nature. Despite having a title that suggests nature paintings, the Sea Hag and company mostly stay in the apartment, eat things, and talk in lofty sentences. Even the awesome power of thunder becomes harmless and "domestic" in the poem's final stanza.
Popeye's consciousness belongs to an earlier period of history when man was not isolated from nature.
So things all started to go wrong when Popeye's father, who looks exactly like him except more wrinkly, got jealous of his son's supply of spinach and his girlfriend and decided to force Popeye to leave the country. Now, in "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," Popeye sits somewhere in the countryside and hurls green thunder that blocks the sun and creates perfect darkness. But, don't worry, it's not mad thunder; it's "loving thunder," and Popeye is very happy in the end. It's a transformation all right...we're just not sure how else in the world to describe it.
Popeye's exile from the country is the cause of transformation in the poem.