Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
Henry Taylor’s “Landscape with Tractor” is a mid-length poem in free verse, written in twelve four-line stanzas. Although mildly evoking the pacing and feel of blank verse, the poem employs no formal metrical device. In terms of its carefully plotted visual arrangement and disciplined emphasis on rhythm, however, “Landscape with Tractor” establishes and maintains a sense of order and control that reinforces its principal thematic concerns.
The poem is written in the first person, with the speaker relating an apparently hypothetical event in the form of long rhetorical questions. The most unusual aspect is the fact that the speaker continually addresses his reader or listener as “you”; because the person being addressed is also the person performing the apparently hypothetical actions of the poem, the actions are also performed by “you” (“you’re mowing,” “you keep going,” and so on). This device suggests a deliberate attempt on the part of the speaker to distance himself from the action of the poem. It also lends this startling poem its unique character, reinforcing its playful equivocation and offhanded ambiguity.
The poem begins with a rhetorical question that serves as both the formal and thematic locus of the poem. Asking the reader “How would it be if you,” the speaker plunges into a surrealistic narrative reminiscent of the fictive musings of Magical Realists such as Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka. The poem proposes a situation in which a man—perhaps the narrator, perhaps not—perfunctorily mows his three-acre lawn with a “bushhog” (a small tractor or mowing machine), sinking further into the numbing mundaneness of the task as the narrative progresses. Just when he seems to have completely lost himself in his work, a bizarre and unforeseen tableau presents itself in his otherwise pastoral landscape.
A dead body is lying in a yet unmowed patch of grass “maybe three swaths” from where the man is cutting. At first he offers himself some more rational, palatable explanation of this grotesque, unsettling image. “It’s a clothing-store dummy, for God’s sake,” he consoles himself. A seeming realist, doubting to the last moment the possibility of an encounter with something so patently bizarre as a corpse, the speaker candidly dismisses the scene, musing ironically that “People/ will toss all kinds of crap from their cars.” In a few more moments, however, he realizes the truth of the situation. An anonymous car “from the city” has apparently discarded a body “like a bag of beer cans.” The mower’s inherent connection with the obligations of the human condition—as well as his practical urge to get things done—lead him to alert the authorities; two country doctors dutifully arrive and “use pitchforks/ to turn the body, some four days dead, and ripening.” The cause of death is immediately apparent; the person has been shot.
According to the narrator, weeks pass and no one “comes forward to identify the body.” He repeats the question “how would it be?” only now in a redefined context. Initially the speaker regards the idea of encountering a dead body as an abstract concept to be debated. Now it becomes a reality, lending new urgency to the problem: Just how would it be? In the closing stanzas the speaker directly addresses a “you” that is clearly meant to be anyone claiming to be a part of humanity. You clearly wish to “go on with your life”—putting gas in the tractor, for example—but cannot easily dismiss the glimpse into mortality revealed in the vision of the “thing not quite like a face/ whose gaze blasted past you at nothing” as the decomposing corpse was gathered and taken away.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434
Taylor is best characterized as a narrative poet. His work is rich with the flavor of a storytelling tradition inherited from his Quaker roots. Thus many Taylor poems, “Landscape with Tractor” being no exception, are replete with the techniques and trappings of a good story—setting, character, conflict, and resolution (or at least a yearning for resolution). Taylor’s meticulous attention to visual arrangement and structure reinforce a central theme of the work, the role of the artificer in the execution of his art. “Landscape with Tractor” concerns the storyteller as much as it does the story, and its appearance on the page shows the reader just how much presentation can impact interpretation. The tight, regularly arranged stanzaic pattern suggests at every moment, in an otherwise stylistically unobtrusive poem, the omnipresent hand of the artisan. Likewise, the call-and-response pattern suggested by the poem’s rhetorical questions reminds the reader that poetry may be as much about the nature and practice of questioning itself as it is about providing “answers” to life’s most stirring questions.
The dead body and the bushhog-steering man mowing stand out as the two images in “Landscape with Tractor” that convey the most resonance. Each suggests a wealth of interpretive possibilities, some of which have already been alluded to. For example, the corpse, as well as the man’s enigmatic attraction toward it, may represent the human psyche’s fascination with its own mysterious destiny. Further, the body might be said to represent the enigma of death itself. A somewhat genteel, contemporary incarnation of Everyman, the mowing man is the thoughtful but slightly jaded persona through whom the problem of this poem is viewed.
The style of Taylor’s language should also be noted. A poem quite accomplished in its mastery of idiom, “Landscape with Tractor” provides in its speaker an absorbing version of the rural “gentleman farmer,” although with a unique postmodern spin. This late-twentieth century man of the country is clearly exiled from “the city” by choice, not by birthright. His general attitude is revealed by the playful and slightly irreverent use of phrases such as “for God’s sake” and “Christ!” At points Taylor instills a wry flippancy into his persona, a figure self-admittedly “with half [his] mind on something [he’d] rather be doing.” By the final lines of the poem, however, his genial manner regarding what he has witnessed has dissolved into a disturbing sobriety brought on by the realization that the dead woman’s image will remain with him, will “stay/ in that field” that houses his memory and conscience until he himself dies.