WHEN WE MOVE AWAY FROM HERE, YOU’LL SEE
A CLEAN SQUARE OF PAPER WHERE HIS PICTURE HUNG
The oldest living cartoon character is the word “popeye.” A cartoon character works this way: it is written so many times, with minor variations, that it appears to walk, to cast a shadow, to eat green leaves. Here are the known facts:
His pants are not white, they are empty. His face is not white, it is empty. His arms are not white, they are empty. When we say “pants, face, arms” what we mean is “where the ink ends and the rest of him begins,” or, “the him that the ink contains.”
His parts are letters. Letters make up his mind, and also emerge from it. And the point where a needle touches his thought bubble to burst it is a letter also.
When he fights his number-one enemy, he undergoes a transformation: he smiles hugely, his teeth turn to rows of movable type, and then rearrange themselves to form an ultimate insult. The enemy then begins to cry, and “popeye” is the winner.
He does not eat, exactly, but the existence of bite-marks in pen-and-ink apples is enough to keep him from going hungry. “Grainy,” he often complains.
When he develops goosebumps, when he forms a knot on the head, when his legs fly apart and form a fast-moving cloud, his line suffers. When his line suffers, it is said that he is “in pain.” Whenever he is “in pain,” a doctor appears and injects him with a straight line, and he sighs with relief.
Much as gold injections are used to treat lions with arthritis.
He has never worn a mustache, because he is not capable of growing a mustache. This is because he lacks both the letters M and W.
What does “popeye” mean? The doctor swabs the inside of his cheek and smears it on a slide, and looks and looks and looks.
He wakes one morning with amnesia, and when one doctor asks his name, and another doctor asks if he knows where he is, he will only say slowly, “My name is ‘popeye,’ I have no other English.”
“Popeye”: An Outline
1. Opening: First draw him a mouth, to ask “who, what, when, where, why, and how?” Then fill the mouth with ink.
2. The Body: Think of your paper as a pan of milk. A pan of milk will form a skin.
3. Closing: There is a small gap between where the arm of “popeye” ends and the fist of him begins. Please join them with your pen.
Eyebrows are his most expressive feature. He himself, straightened, is someone’s eyebrow.
In moments of grave danger, his bicep turns transparent, and reveals a sizable ink-clot, with small rivers of ink streaming away from it to form his outline, day after day, year after year. This is to reassure his viewers, who continually fear his death.
“Popeye,” in his adolescence, goes through a period of floating off the page. His father sits him down and recommends an anchor tattoo. Although he is “drawn,” and although he is “a place,” he is not a map. If anything, he is a “cartouche”: the area of a map that encloses information about the map itself.
He is often captured and sentenced to slave labor, always the same: to row oars in other moving words, and be whipped within an inch by ascenders and descenders.
Watching him works this way: he walks the length of your vision until he reaches the end. You gulp like a gangplank and he falls into the drink.
Or: He disappears into the sunset, riding a little killie over and under the waves.
Or: His enormous boyfriend is named Perspective; he ties him to train tracks again and again.
Any piece of paper on which “popeye” is printed counts as a Will, as it contains his signature, his witness, proof of his death, a list of all the property he owns, and the name of his inheritor.
Occasionally a schoolgirl will write “popeye” over and over with a pink pen, and it is then that he wears a dress and pretends to be a lady.
Depending on the decade, draw seams up the backs of his legs.
Parts of his body exist only when he is looking at them. He uses his shoeshine to stare up his own skirt.
At the school dance, “popeye” feels a pang in his belly and an urge to push. “Why me?” he wonders. “Why now?” Alone, he disappears through the door marked & and does what he must do.
When he is angry, a frizz of black ink appears above his head. No, forgive me. That is not ink at all. That is the least favorite hair of the typesetter, the one that emerges from the thought of his mother.
The Ongoing Crimes of His Mother and Father
His mother reaches out, hatches ink under him,
and commands him to stand and walk.
His father bursts into the room, screaming,
“What is the meaning? What is the meaning
His mother rushes to explain, and feels
the pain of a strikethrough fly through her.
“Popeye” famously wets himself—the worst
mistake a young image can make.
His father lifts a ruler, brings it down hard
on his “boy,” lifts a paint-stirrer up again.
“Popeye” is an extension of the human arm. When driving horses, lift and crack him until your horses break into a black streak. Then set him upright in the whip socket again.
He is famous for being always on time; he arrives at his destination in one second flat.* In one minute flat. In one hour flat.**
*How? We suspect that he lives in an atlas, where all distances are collapsible.
**“Flat” is not the word. Say instead, there is a limited amount of him, like water, and it seeks its level.
Is he “made of paper”? No, he is papered like a hallway. Is he “made of ink”? No, he is a ghost who had ink thrown on him during a fight, and as a consequence is now visible.
Regarding ink, why black? Black because something was extinguished there?
When rain falls on him, it falls in interruptions, incompletes, brokenoffs and bitten-backs—it is true to its typographical nature and never touches the ground.
Every second Sunday, his mother combs kerosene through his hair. The lice that live on books are not the same as the lice that live on scalps, and “popeye” has them both.
Occasionally he is left unfinished—that is, winter comes and snows in the page while his mother still has three fingers left to knit.
A poster called “Phases of the Moon” is tacked on the schoolroom wall. It shows his face in shadow, half in shadow; in light, half in light.
Page by page the “popeye” calendar is torn away. Page by page he is sent through the shredder, and finds himself in long days like the year.
“Popeye” goes hunting and brings down a 12-pointer. He drags the body to a clearing. “Thought bubble, thought bubble,” he says meditatively, and eats the lungs.
Were you a carnivore before you saw him? You are a carnivore now. He is served in slices. He is served bone-in and skin-on.
While he sleeps, “popeye” dreams of being eaten by the lion, the tiger, the leopard, the jaguar. All the roaring cats appear to him, and he dreams of being spoken backward through their strong black lips.
And being reborn on their backs as: a pattern on a solid-color coat.
And being shot, skinned, and laid out on a library floor. And his mouth forced open to seem always to be speaking.
“Popeye” stars in a revival of A Sensation Novel. He stands on a bare stage and delivers everyone’s lines. Between acts, all-in-black move back and forth and break down the scenery behind him.
The purpose of a shadow is: to put “popeye” where he is not. Shadowed he stands, like a stencil letter, always next to himself.
His protruding “pop-eye” is a world-ending button. When its dark outline disappears, you will know that the button is being pressed.
His other eye a crow walked closed.
“Popeye” loves all literature; he keeps hens for their scratchings and chickens for their prints.
One flipbook depicts him walking out to his garden and watering his own buried body until a white cabbage grows from him and prettily presents its outer leaves. This book is perpetual, and flips back and forth continually.
This flipbook is so thick that even the strongman cannot tear it. Instead, he tears a phonebook filled only with the names of “popeye” and his descendants, and the page numbers that are their addresses.
(Of sick numbers, it is said, “Number one is: number one on the list for a transplant; number two is: number two on the list.” The first and oldest “popeye” waits for his living donor to appear, and takes comfort in the knowledge that there is no death in his phonebook, and there are no unlistings.
Picture his impossible funeral: hundreds of him, laid out in the little coffins of the prepositions: under under, over over. In in.)
So many mouths to feed! In a permanent kitchen, in a permanent corner, he stretches a single meal as far as it will go. Slices and slices a transparent pie.
After supper, he sits on the porch with a long black shotgun and waits for a buffalo to wander into view. He uses every part of the buffalo— he uses them down to their eyewhites, he uses the very lines that make them up.
He walks to the city to be counted in the census. A wind gets itself up and ruffles him relentlessly, but miniature monuments hold him down.
His paper is usually neatly stacked, especially when still in original trees.
Lives where? In voices: hills and valleys. Lives all in the alphabet as if it were a rowhouse. Lives at the peak of the tallest chalk hill.
Or lives: nowhere at all. He wanders the desert, written on old skins, moaning, “Where is home, where is home?” And waits for a tent peg to be driven through his skull.
He walks to the edge of his very country, he walks forward till he fills his profile completely, he walks into the water of Marblehead.
“Popeye” sits on the riverbank and sends himself sailing into the water: he is a good graphite rod with a strong fly line; he sings away from his reel.
His occasional girlfriend, doodled in the margins, cannot have intercourse with him; she suffers badly from vestibulitis.
A disorder of her entrance.
She faints every time he tries. “Popeye” reads the dictionary out loud to revive her. He reads, “Syncope is: a blackout, a loss of consciousness. Syncope is: the loss of one or more sounds from the interior of
While her eyes are closed, he must suppress the temptation to spread her out and pin her like a map through a single place. For her skirt is cut to here, her blouse is cut to there!
Notes on His Movement
He is photographed in the still old style, wearing
a shirt patterned with white cartwheels.
His pants patterned with instructions for a two-step.
The old music players have a strong solid base like the base of a statue, and a flowering-out above. A statue of “popeye” rises in the center of the song that is playing:
Popeye the man is no longer standing!
Popeye the man has been killed in the stomach;
his French horn spills out and out!
“Popeye” drops from the sky. The townspeople gather to watch him fall and wait to see his imprint in the pavement, but he reaches out at the last moment and grabs a branch—of what?—of the clock tower. He is suspended there still, hanging off the hour hand.
In a town with no clock tower, “popeye” falls from a great height and his thigh-bones are driven up into his body, click, like the first length of lead in a mechanical pencil.
Past, present, and future: “popeye” falls in a painting. In the foreground, a farmer pays no attention, and binds bales of newspapers in a field. “Popeye” will limp to him later, and ask to be splinted with rolled-up
(A broken leg is often fatal for a “popeye”;
one blank to the temple will take him out.)
If the dailies succeed in prolonging him, he will heal into a new configuration: his body will bend and twist and seize; he will become a living monk’s cramp.
“Popeye” is the priest, and you must confess to him. There is a black grate where his face should be.
What does he worship—the Cross or the Clean Line? The churches here have lines for the pews to sit in, and the Bible here is Dürer’s hare.
And who is his higher power? From time to time, he feels the glass hover above him, feels magnified, feels “read,” and feels it move away.
Believes he walks on a beach, but above him, a lens is ground and ground.
And what was broken open to reveal him? In his world, all visible things stand up on the half-shell.
Correction: “I do not live in a world at all,” “popeye” says indignantly, and tightens the equator around his waist.
And does he fear death? He dreams he is a brand that sits in the fire forever.
It is impossible to know when he was born. A fragment dating from 500 BC refers to him; the title is translated as “Popeye Wavers a Little in the Heat,” or alternately, “Popeye Lives in a Hell of Line Boil.” Many have attempted to translate:
A pencil ship is difficult to wreck, but “popeye”
manages every time. The sun shines directly
above him, he floats on a raft of reflection all
the way to shore. He is caught. Cannibals
carry him home on a pole, and cannibals
cook him alive in worst-hot sketch-water.
He lives in every mouth now,
he cannot call himself his own!
A ship drawn only with parallel lines will never
reach its destination, and will sink if it sinks
only straight down. “Popeye” sails for the horizon
because it is all he can see: he lacks the vertical
stroke I. He sails and he sails, tied to the mast,
the ocean boiling over below him,
feeling his own head turn to a ham,
feeling slices turn over one by one.
A long book of him is called a “brick,” and a long book of him is called a “doorstop.”
When it came time to put these pages in order, I laid them all out on the floor, creating the appearance of a city of rooftops seen from above. And “popeye,” who lived there, had climbed to each one.
And lay on his back reading “The Myth of the Bookcover.”
And stood up like a writing tendon, and said, “Why did you leave the book open? Anyone could have walked in.”
—from Rattle #35, Summer 2011
Pushcart Prize Nominee
Share the Poetry