CUTBANK REVIEWS: Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker

Ram Hands by Ellen Welcker (2016)

Review by Karin Schalm

I first met Ellen Welcker a few years back when she read in Missoula from her vivacious collection, The Botanical Garden. I remember the stunning feeling of exhilaration that overcame me while listening to her work, the sense of certainty this author had passed the Emily Dickinson smell test—“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

Ram Hands, Welcker’s second full-length collection of poetry, combines newer poems with her previous chapbook, Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline. Printed by Scablands Books in late 2016, Ram Hands calls attention to both the beauty and discomfort of poetic language. Welcker invites us to laugh with her at the seriousness of the poet who frames herself in the act of writing and even the reader—ourselves—when we assume we are safely outside the text, looking in from a removed space. Poems titled “ellenwelcker, you have no events scheduled today,” “poem that wonders if it feels safer with a blanket over its head,” and “Still Life with Viewer as Object” are interspersed with poems inflated with their own sense of importance, titles like “This Day in History,” “Rhetorical Analysis,” and “Deep.”

My favorite title is the complicated “’Who has not broken our heart,’ said the friend. ‘Carl Linnaeus has not broken our heart.’” In this prose poem, there’s a process of doubling that demonstrates how complexity springs from the simplest of building blocks: “May I call you Carl? Carl… I am—we are—four things, sixteen—what are we—wonder, whale, mouse, monster, matter?” Welcker approaches the reader best with her oddly insightful questions. In “When my son says I’m a girl and I’m a boy,” the speaker asks, “Do you feel frustrated, reader, / by my lack of attendance to my son’s early awareness / of the spectrum of gender, the body’s ability to be both?”

Welcker pays attention to the confusion generated by the limitless questions, often posed as mindless commands, in this modern world. In “Mouth That Tastes of Gasoline” she writes:

It’s weird when people use Facebook to communicate
with the dead but I get it:

the way humans evolve to carry useless organs around

I’m a machine with my own colossal network
the small print: it’s a beak in my hearts
it’s weird

when you’re asked

to check yes or no

I know

the world prefers me


These poems serve as a survival manual for the strangeness of this world: “this is a workbook / you can write in it,” she says, or “stay away from the shellfish…don’t lock your knees / always take the stairs.” There’s a sexuality and playfulness to Welcker’s work that can quickly go awry: “our safe word was / platypus.”

Welcker evokes environmental degradation, paternalistic violence and capitalistic greed with banal objects of domesticity. The combination of nature—in various forms of torture—with the everyday stuff of human life makes for a complicated mish-mash: “slugs drape themselves grossly like used tea bags” or “I heave a beached orca into a plastic bag. It quietly doubles over on itself. I twist the top of the bag and look for a bread tie.”  

Here’s one of my favorites, “Nature Poem.” Enjoy it in its entirety. Then visit Scablands Books to learn more about Ram Hands.

              Nature Poem

Let’s say you’re a female animal
and a parasite has infected your brain,
made you do crazy things. Let’s say
it’s not living inside you, exactly,
but near you, near enough to come
inside you, dripping poison,
though let’s say it’s not poison,
but a magic elixir that mixes
with yours, begins to grow. See
how out of control things
can be? Let’s say you’re not
a woman, exactly, but female,
a female animal, and someone,
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.
Her nest might look like a tumor
hip-checking for wiggle room, hungry
for your food. The animal renders
your sex organs useless and you care
for the children of this shadow-you. Now
she bores a hole in you: makes a new
cunt, where they can come
to mate with her through you,
an animal too.

Karin Schalm, a former CutBank Poetry Editor, lives, works and writes in Missoula where she serves as University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program Coordinator. She has been published in Camas, ep;phany, The Sun and other journals.