Book Review: The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker

The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker
You could read Melville’s Moby Dick. You could travel the world. You could read about the plight of immigrants and refugees in The New York Times and discuss them over dinner. You could visit the border. You could ship out on a whaler or ship out with Greenpeace. You could give birth, remain childless or try intro-fertilization.

Or, you could read Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden. (Astrophil Press 2010). The poem makes a great thematic companion to any of the above activities.

At the crossroads of Welcker’s poem, fetuses, whales, refugees, immigrants, and aliens intersect. The poem travels by invoking the names of exotic locales around the world — countries of islands and enclaves — and explores rites of birthing, passage, and injustice.

Why read poetry? Non-fiction typically fulfills our dogged pursuit of knowledge. These days, we want fast facts, conclusions. We want to be told. We want to be smarter.

But The Botanical Garden grows facts. Did you know? “The heart of a whale may weigh 1,500 pounds.” You can learn a lot about whales, refugees, detainees immigrants and aliens here. You can learn the definition of an asylum seeker and the differences between a refugee and an undocumented immigrant. You can hear what’s polluting the ocean: plastic nurdles and chemical weapons dumps.

However, in The Botanical Garden facts run wild but are not abandoned. They are interspersed with fictions, “A subtropical whale; the color of papaya.” Words are transposed to give facts new meaning, “while migrating the refugee surfaces.” Rather than expounding or straining to provide an objective report, the author goes exploring and the reader, setting sail within words, must also enter a mode of exploration.

In The Botanical Garden, you will encounter new ideas and unfamiliar arrangements that challenge preconceived notions. The contextualization of words, the unexpected nearness for example of “echolocation” and “ultrasound,” floats the reader into new territory. Listen: “The cries of whales sound eerily like the cries of displaced peoples.”

You will begin thinking about the problems of polluted oceans, drought, and displaced peoples, while a few seeded facts blossom into Welcker’s ponderables:

  • The heart of an immigrant may weigh as much as a nation-state.
  • Counting is a system that does not involve seeing.
  • Truth is a manipulation of language. Sometimes. Not always. Don’t be sorry.
  • How we move away from drought and how we move toward it.

With globalization, the distance between people has cinched. The world’s problems are not problems of one place. Our borders are shifting and ill-defined. Countries struggle to maintain them. We can leap from location to location. There’s magic in this movement. Welcker’s poem captures this experience and recreates it. The world — the work reminds us — is a complex, multi-faceted place.

Poet Ellen Welcker
Ellen Welcker, author of The Botanical Garden, paddleboarding a salt marsh on the North Carolina coast.

The author describes how the work came about:

The Botanical Garden is essentially one long poem that travels through—and names—every country in the world. (And as I knew would happen, it is already out of date, thanks to the 2011 addition of the country of South Sudan). I was living first in Reno and then on Vashon Island, outside of Seattle, while I wrote this poem. I was thinking about these human-imposed state and nation lines, and how futile they are in the face of ecological concerns. Climate change has amped up natural disasters both in size and frequency, nuclear crises like Fukushima, oil wars, and habitat depletion are scratches in the surface. But the ocean – no one even pretends to lay claim, or responsibility, rather – to the ocean. It is truly a no-man’s land when it comes to protection and rehabilitation. So these were the kinds of thoughts I was exploring while writing my narrator through these countries, encountering walls, borders, and boundaries of all sorts, some solid, some invisible, and as she navigates them, finding her own physical and psychological borders shifting and mutating as well.

There are many worthy ways to read The Botanical Garden. You can read it line by line in order or at random. You can flip through it reading page by page in lapping, little waves or you can read it full on, in order, all at once entering the tides and watching them crescendo. The poem is like an ocean in this sense.

Welcker uses the poet’s bag of tricks: tantalizing metaphors, restless ambiguity, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and general keenness for sound. She co-opts bureaucratic jargon, “Oceans are largely considered a waste management option.” to rebirth it in a new world. Sentences are repeated and strategically placed. The poet’s words plash together.

Surprising for a work that channels whales and oceans and transports the reader to big thoughts and far away places the actual book, The Botanical Garden, is a small square, the width of a hand. It contains two poems: the title work and “a map, my loves, I am drawing it by heart.” By contrast, the second poem with similar themes — love without boundaries — comes in a more familiar aural rush.

The Botanical Garden received the 2009 Astrophil Press Poetry Prize, recognizing innovative new voices in American poetry. It reminds us to dive into the teeming ocean of poetry, as well, when we seek to grow.

What to read next?
Plume (2012) by Kathleen Flenniken, was inspired by reports of environmental contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, and is the 2013 Washington State Book Award Winner for Poetry.

Find more reviews and reading suggestions for contemporary poetry at Gently Read Literature.

The author recommends checking out these “two groups doing interesting and important border-obliterating work” — Inuit Circumpolar Council and Navdanya.

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