In Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden, a world of people, events, and creatures become seen—not seen the way we see Twitter updates, but the way we see a new land for the first time.

The speaker of the title poem is a knowledgeable tour guide, a lover writing letters by hand, a mother speaking to the baby in her belly. The voice ebbs and flows between watcher/participant, mother/lover, I/We. The poem emphasizes dichotomy–us vs. them, insider/outsider, safe/endangered–only to dissolve such boundaries a moment later. The taken-for-granted becomes seen, the political becomes intimate, the intimate becomes public–and all of it swirls together like the waters of the ocean. The speaker is on a tour of the world by boat; she is of the sea–a cetacean; she is on a trip with her lover; she is Homeland Security agent; she is detainee. We the readers are also in shifting territory, observing and participating in a land both familiar and strange. The work is full of language from Homeland Security and the George W. Bush presidency. It also contains language of pregnancy and birth. Something is trying to be born. We stroll through a fantastic garden of whales, embryos, fences, labels.

Saving an immigrant’s umbilical cord blood stem cells could help protect cetaceans from nearly seventy diseases.

In “Dominican Republic” I retraced by own umbilicus, but was stopped at the border. Before or after it stops pulsating, I asked the guard. I just need to know. (15)

All the country names in the 63-page title poem are in quotes, signaling a different reality than the reader takes for granted. The familiar becomes new. A woman gives birth to a yam. The poem’s playful and surreal use of language breaks down labels and exposes the fear dwelling in some hearts, and in the laws of an entire country.

Because they are rarely seen, the undocumented migrant has taken on mythic proportions. Sightings have been said to include eight arms and seven feet with a flea collar around the neck. The shape of the body or the tail emerging from the water often translates to something ‘monstrous.’

A failure to provide water to a whale is unconscionable.

I got a chalk mark on my jacket from a chalk man in “Malawi.” Someone
said it was because I had coughed. Someone said it was the strange
expression on my face (27).

Most Americans, living in homes bought before the mortgage crisis, accumulating flat-screened TVs and binkies, may not think we are connected to the refugee, the undocumented immigrant. Most Americans may have never been to a war-torn country, we may never have known drought. Welcker’s writing requires a new way of perceiving the world – this is what is being born in The Botanical Garden. The book requires us to see connections where we might have seen borders.

The Botanical Garden was the recipient of the 2009 Astrophil Press Poetry Prize (judged by Eleni Sikelianos). The title poem is followed by another prose poem, “a map, my loves, I am drawing it by heart,” which reads almost like an epilogue to “The Botanical Garden.”

This map, it hurts, loves. It cannot be any other way. This map
I am carving…on the chest of my lover. This map I am slashing…on
the back of an other. This map I am obscuring over the face of
my mother. Can it be any other way. (66)

To read The Botanical Garden is to see, journey, empathize, and to participate in our world with fresh engagement.

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PRIYA KEEFE entered life through the door of the Pike Place Market. She has performed experiments combining soul-numbing corporate work and Motown music and lived one summer on unemployment checks and the breath of baby birds.

She has been poetry and cross-genre editor for The Pitkin Review. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is looking for a publisher for her book, a poetry novella.

Publications include Switched-on Gutenberg, qarrtsiluni, Pontoon 7, Seattle Poetry Buses, and Drash. Her poem "Dual Cymbals" took 2nd place at the 2009 Seattle Erotic Art Festival.

Priya’s performances include the Bumbershoot festival, Bart Baxter Poetry in Performance, and Band of Poets. From the Lips of Town Criers is her spoken word CD.

She loves living in a city whose government meetings include poetry (she curated the Seattle City Council readings in 2010). Priya lives in the Capitol Hill district and self-identifies as un-hip.

2 responses to “A New Way of Seeing: A Review of The Botanical Garden, by Ellen Welcker”

  1. Priya says:

    You can find The Botanical Garden at the Astrophil Press website: http://astrophilpress.com/?id=4&book_id=8

  2. Khadija says:

    Nice Priya, sounds like an interesting book! XO

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