Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker.
Ellen Welcker has taken on large ideas in her new poetry collection, Ram Hands (Scablands Books, 2016). She posits what it is to be a person and the response is immense, feeling larger than the selection of poems presented. At the same time, she has boiled it down to a personal level and we can see her attempting to find the answer. Even at the end, I think she’s getting closer, but maybe not ready to let us know what she’s found out. It is now up to us to read and reread the poems in this collection to determine the extent of the progress for ourselves.
The first section of the collection, “My Ram Hands,” seems to be dealing with the continued survival of human beings and how that fits into our animal nature. Sure, we’re animals, but at the same time we’ve reached a level of consciousness allowing us to be aware of our mortality. This is the purgatory we seem to find Welcker’s poems. On one hand she knows what is coming and why we (in the largest sense of the word) continue procreating. We can see an example of this in “Nature Poem” where she explores pregnancy. While there is language here describing the physicality of the process, “Another animal, wants to nest / inside you. She looks around / for someplace to get in and / when she does, she leaves her body / behind: now she has yours.” Not only is she exploring the growth, but also the passing of genes and DNA, and I can’t help but think about the inheritance of the greater world. As a parent, there are moments when I find myself saying things and acting just like my parents and I know it’s not completely nature or nurture, but a mixture of the two. This is—through their genetics and a common household—something they have passed down to me, allowing it to gestate and grow over the course of thirty years.
A later poem also in the first section is “Alright.” The book focuses on the responsibility to protect our offspring, but being the conscious beings we are, we know constant protection is impossible for the duration of our entire lives. We do our best to protect our kids—physically and emotionally—but there are so many outside catalysts boring their way into everyone’s lives that no one is safe. The poem is framed around her six-year-old daughter and her fear of her daughter growing up and how parents have to force themselves to lie and tell their kids that everything is going to be okay and we’ll always be with them. But we know we’re mortal. We know we’re going to die eventually and while I personally want to protect my son from ever finding out that fact, he is going to learn soon enough. Then, Welcker takes a turn, starting the final stanza with, “When she gets a little older, I will give her / a mad-eyed smile. I’ll put my stone cold finger / in her sternum and say, I will HAUNT you.” It’s a joke, but in essence she is scratching at something much larger. Like she explores in “Nature Poem,” what makes up her is the same materials that make up her daughter. When she dies, every time her daughter looks in the mirror she’ll see hints of her mother. Sometimes she’ll even say things that she’ll have to pause and think to herself, That sounded just like my mom. In an abstract way, the genes that go on living in her daughter will keep Welcker alive and immortal.
The second section of Ram Hands is called “Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline” and while it is broken into twenty-one sections, it is a single poem. There is a recurring line throughout, “Humans evolve to carry useless organs around.” While the first section seemed to weigh what it means to be human, this second section tends to try and dismantle how we even got to the point where we can form the question. We have evolved and while I think humans are striving to be better, sometimes the animal side of us can get in the way because “humans evolve to desire a man / whose mouth tastes of gasoline.” We are drawn to things that we can recognize aren’t the best, but it doesn’t make that desire any less.
Ellen Welcker gives us more questions than answers in what it means to be a human. It’s her path of getting close to an answer and then having it spawn into more questions that makes this book so damn appealing. “In order to stop caring / in order to start caring again / it’s going to take washing / these ram hands & / knowing they / still smell like ram.” Ram Hands has a desire to reconnect with the human self, but it knows our base animal needs will always be present inside of us—and it’s up to us to reconcile the two.