“Ram Tested on Mount Vert” by Grant Quackenbush

Ekphrastic Challenge, July 2015: Artist’s Choice


Photograph by Aparna Pathak


Grant Quackenbush


Goats are reported to have been liberated on the Auckland Island group in the second half of the nineteenth century as food for castaways.
—Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand

Then Goat bleated unto Ram: “Sacrifice
your kid Billy, whom you love, for to prove
your loyalty. Shove him off the ledge of
the ruin on Vert Mountain; let him fall
from your care into the green-green pasture
of my shelter, where he will wait for you.”

And so the next morning Ram slipped away
from the thatched pen in which he slept and was,
unbeknownst to him, being kept. Biting
down on the palm twine that divided him
from the tall order he divined, he yanked
toward his heart and released the bowline knot.

I will multiply your offspring tenfold …
remembered Ram who, looking at his kid
sleeping between two square bales like slices
of bread, had his doubts. Bowing his pale, horned
head, Ram mouthed a prayer to Goat so that,
had rounder eyes been watching, they’d have thought

he was chewing cud. “O Goat,” he began,
“forgiving and all-knowing Goat, how white
your beard must be, how bloated your belly …
Give me the strength to send my kid Billy
three-hundred feet through the clear morning air,
cold as it may be. For though my forehead

is thick rock, the brains behind it are clay;
they want me to ask if there’s any way
you can take this cup from my cloven hands,
my hoof-shaped bleating heart. But, since there’s not,
fill me with your will. Place it on my tongue
like a strange berry, hard yet soon to be

jelly. I’ll eat anything, even if
it kills me: rhubarb, cactus, my own flesh
if I was hungry enough … O, spare him!”
Finished praying, Ram nudged Billy awake
and the two set out for the mountain where
Ram was to offer Billy up, or down.

After thirty minutes of traversing
over thorny, flowerless brambles and
gopher holes ransacked by snakes, they arrived
at the switchbacks that led to the ruin,
and stopped. “Um … dad?” asked Billy. “Where’s the grass
you spoke of last night? The red grass you said

I’d eat for breakfast? My stomach’s bleating
and my legs are shaking. I feel as though
I’m about to fall over.” “Come, my kid,”
answered Ram. “Let us go up this hillside
to see if we can see the grass below.”
And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the summit of the mountain
and saw the skeleton of the ruin
or the ruins of a skeleton—bones
piled so high Ram wondered how many
other goats had taken the plunge, and died—
Ram told Billy to go out on the ledge

above the verdant valley and look down
to get a view of the ground. “I’ll be right
behind you,” he explained, “but I’m afraid
I cannot follow you.” Confused but not
troubled, wide-eyed but bat-blind, Billy stepped
onto the concrete beam as if walking

the rotten plank of life, his knees knocking
together like a colt’s trying to stand
in its new world governed by gravity.
“Don’t look back,” Ram warned, “or you might see me
for who I really am: not Ram, but Lamb,
less a goat than a sham.” Then he lowered

the log of his neck and took a deep breath
and began his accelerated charge
when a cigar-choked croak that ricocheted
off the crags and clouds bellowed, “Hey! Dumb goats!
Get the hell down from there!” Peering over
the edge of the end as if staring out

an open penthouse window, Ram noticed
the source of this unintelligible,
goatish voice: the hairless, hornless monkey
who’d been feeding them for the past two weeks
and who was now running up the switchbacks
like the blinding sparks of a burning fuse.

Ekphrastic Challenge, July 2015
Artist’s Choice Winner

[download audio]


Comment from the artist, Aparna Pathak, on her selection: “I read all the poems quite a number of times and enjoyed all the philosophical, mythological, psychological or personal ways in which photograph has been interpreted. Some poems were highly emotive while others had beautiful imagery and imagination. There were quite a few poems about fears of a parent or a child, but Grant Quackenbush’s ‘Ram Tested On Mount Vert’ grabbed my attention. The very first line gave me a judder and kept me inquisitive and interested till the end even though I was aware of its mythological connection. The dilemma of mind and heart touched me immensely. Lines like, ‘Ram was to offer Billy up, or down,’ creates suspense and ‘over thorny, flowerless brambles and gopher holes ransacked by snakes, they arrived at the switchbacks that led to the ruin, and stopped,’ creates anxiety. The use of simile in ‘his knees knocking together like a colt’s trying to stand in its new world governed by gravity’ is remarkable. The ending lines leave reader thoughtful. It is a well written poem where every stanza is well composed.” (website)

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