Book Review

Ed Werstein, Who Are We Then? Partisan Press, 2013

by Richard Swanson

Ed Werstein’s collection of social protest poems comes from his life as a factory worker, labor activist, and peace advocate. These poems have grit and substance with direct, unequivocal statements.  Here, for example, is the opening of his “Money:”

Money just doesn’t talk.
It shouts. It rants.
It wants its opinion
heard over and over.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Money votes:
one dollar a vote.

Money carries a gun
and doesn’t bother to conceal it.

Sometimes, social protest poetry like this suffers from shrillness, the poet screaming and trying to shock, in the tradition of Ginsburg’s “Howl.” Instead, a skilled protester like Werstein uses domestic settings, historical backgrounds, and striking analogies—to challenge his readers’ beliefs or energize their commitment to a cause.

In “Wheat Harvest,” what looks like a nostalgic reminiscence of simple farm life becomes a poignant essay about invisible corporate agriculture. Werstein identifies his yearning to turn back the clock as a need:  

It’s not just the being ten and innocent again.
It’s to know again where things come from,
that someone’s grandma fed the chickens I eat,
that a real human being touched the wheat
in my bread,
to know the name of the steer
whose meat is in my freezer.

What a gut-grabbing image that final one is, stark and immediate.

I love this poet’s kaleidoscopic sweep of history in one of the book’s strongest works, “Teaching Women How to Fly,” about factory workers in New York; Flint, Michigan; the Rust Belt before it became that; and now Bangladesh – women whose lives perished when they jumped from windows in burning factories. Reading this and “The Way Philanthropy Works” (about miners, steelworkers, and oil riggers) brings to mind Mexican wall murals like those by Diego Rivera, with masses of idealistic workers, interwoven images, toiling together against seemingly-hopeless futures.

Werstein’s readers will easily give him lots of street cred, but taken with his social messages, they may not realize he’s well-skilled as a poet. Evidence for that is his “The Center, Not Holding,” a working class riff on Yeats’s classic “Sailing to Byzantium,” one more example of Werstein’s gift for analogies, which I mentioned before. 

Darkness drops
as the rough beast
of recession,
having devoured Bethlehem
and other steel towns
decades ago,
slouches on and on.

Another analogy-based poem is “Red-winged Sentry,” in which the narrator accidentally intrudes on a red-winged blackbird’s nesting territory. The bird, defender of nature, confronts the human intruder, who ruefully acknowledges that his presence might be seen as more than a little threatening. The narrator pleads that he not be seen as a militarist invader and a pillaging marauder:

I tried my best to explain things to him.
Told him it was inadvertent encroachment,
not a pre-emptive strike.
that I had no intentions of
leaving behind permanent bases,
stealing his resources
or changing his traditional way of life.

But he was having none of my apology.

Striking in this concluding passage is the narrator’s hard insight and his appreciative feeling for the blackbird. This conflicting tension frames the conclusion beautifully.

Probably the best use of this poet’s metaphorical power comes in “Resolution Review,” which brings home an insightful reminder to activists: don’t get worn down and sleep through disaster:     

On the road to ruin
good intentions lie all around me
like crumbling bricks
of abandoned factories.

I walk tripping and stumbling
sleep-stepping the path
in search of journeymen masons
to pave my way.

Morning after mortared morning
the mason within ignores
the alarm
and rolls over.

Not only analogy, but also alliteration, assonance and consonance are poetic bedrocks of this piece.
One final note about Werstein’s “voice.” Many of these poems use repeated phrases or lines to weave a message, and the works often try to create a mantra effect, as in the opening of the book’s title poem:

sixteen civilians shot dead
in Kandahar
a soldier snaps
and sixteen die
mostly women and children
a soldier snaps
three tours of duty in Iraq
now deployed in Afghanistan
he snaps
sixteen dead

To read them properly you have appreciate their aural qualities, “listening” to them as they might have been conceived, as coffee-house or street-rally pieces spoken or chanted, to a roused crowd.

Read this way at home, “Who Are We Then?” can produce the same outcome, a feeling that Werstein’s work deserves sustained applause. The book has a special niche in the range of poetry being written today, and Werstein really knows how to charge his social protests with gusto.

Richard Swanson is the author of two collections Men in the Nude in Socks and Not Quite Eden and a chapbook (Paparazzi Moments), from Fireweed Press. A frequent reviewer for Verse Wisconsin, he is also the Secretary of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.