edward morin

Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines by Ed Werstein

com
.
By Edward Morin
.
Ed Werstein’s first full-length collection, A Tar Pit to Dye In (2018), showed a jaunty bent for wordplay, commitment to poetry as vocation, and uncommon insight into human relationships and societal concerns. His new book, Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines (Waters Edge Press, 2021), builds on this foundation. It restates commitment in an opening epigraph from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Insurgent Art:
.

“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

.
Communiqué distributes over five dozen poems into sections named for thematic categories used by the full-service newspapers: National and Local News, International News, Weather Report, Sports Report, Business News, Politics, Special: The War Report, Science and Religion, and Obituaries.” Citing the headline and media source for each poem, Werstein segues from the original coverage into his personal insights, feelings, and interpolations.
.
On the National and Local front, “A Couple from Massachusetts” tells of hikers who slip off an icy cliff and fall to their death. At first, the poet asks:
.
With news of war, mass shootings, a pandemic
and a looming environmental disaster,
Why do I need to know about this?
.
He decides that, of the 7,500 people who die each day in the U.S., these two are special to more than just their relatives and friends because they died “in each other’s arms doing something they love to do. / I should be so lucky.” The interplay of public and deeply personal themes is continually present throughout the book.
.
Ranging from very recent news to that of bygone eras, headlines are the dock from which Captain Werstein launches his flotilla of poems. “Transportation Blues,” uses stock phrases from blues lyrics in complaints about Governor Scott Walker’s veto of high-speed rail in Wisconsin and the overall degradation of railroad passenger service in the U.S. In “Dear Emmett,” the woman linked to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till admits six decades later that she gave false testimony, underscoring the slow pace of racial justice. The personal compulsions driving these poems prevent them from treading water as rhetorical propaganda.
.
For International News, Werstein draws on his experience living in Latin America as he portrays a deadly earthquake, Chilean miners rescued after weeks trapped underground, and the politics of Pablo Neruda’s body being exhumed. “Teaching Women How to Fly” compares America’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 with a similar industrial atrocity in Bangladesh, where the women “flying” to their deaths were sewing clothes Americans buy at Walmart. Working people’s perspectives are prominent throughout the collection.
.
Weather Report features “Junkman’s Wet Dream,” about a Milwaukee flood of biblical proportions and the aftermath:
.
Today, in the sunshine, people all over the city
are hauling water-soaked hutches, cabinets
and carpets to the curb as old pickup trucks,
driven by junkyard vultures, circle
like Conestogas making camp,
like planes over La Guardia,
like toms around a cat in heat,
ready to pounce.
.
The poem “It’s Not God, It’s Us” epitomizes America’s apathy in the face of global warming: “[Don’t] take any action, except maybe sending a few bucks: / our only way to make up for a strangled government.”
.
The emotional tone of poems in Sports News are by turns acerbic or heartwarming. They spotlight injuries in football games, Trump’s censure of NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem, and celebrations of the poet’s hometown Milwaukee Brewers and the legendary Detroit Tiger broadcaster, Ernie Harwell.  In Business News, the poem “Mine” plays upon that word as a corporate representative urges the reopening of an environmentally dangerous iron mine in the Penokee Ridges, then asserts rights of ownership over incalculable assets:
.
The oil is mine, the water, mine,
even the wind. I’ll meter it and sell it to you
as soon as you buy all my oil.
.
The speaker’s exaggerations in favor of corporate greed reduce his arguments to absurdity.
.
The poet himself becomes playfully absurd in the poem “Austerity,” which addresses the world’s debt problem. He asks naively,
.
What if, like other states, the state of poetry were in default?
Poets everywhere would be in debt.
A word lifted here, a phrase there, . . .
and pretty soon it would start to add up.
.
Lenders would keep monetized words like “gold,” “estates,” “offshore bank accounts” to themselves and
.
[w]e would be left with only titles,
signifying not our ownership
but our mounting debts,
and these few words: austerity
crisis, foreclosure, unemployment,
hunger, poverty, war.
.
Words that would never be taken from us.
.
Communiqué includes four villanelles—a stanza form that usually hampers rhetorical purpose; the best of these is “Second Thoughts” in the Politics section. Responding to the headline, “Virginia Legislature Turns Down Ban on Military-style Weapons,” a gun-rights advocate asserts:
.
Above all else on Earth I love my guns.
They’re symbols of my freedom and my rights. . . .
            *          *          *
Above my wife, my daughters and my sons
whose lives my guns protect throughout the night.
            *          *          *
Opposing points of view I always shun.
There’s only one amendment I can cite.
.
The speaker’s romance with firearms has become his ruling passion:
.
Some poems of Special: The War Report visit U. S. military incursions into Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, others poems treat related domestic outbreaks of gun violence. The poet hasn’t met a war he doesn’t dislike. Science and Religion offers lighter fare. “The Picture of Dorian Redwood” exults in longevity, “The Voices at Chauvet Cave” imagines artists of primitive drawings speaking to us, and “Pan-Demonic” is a Bacchanalian paeon to lovers’ sensual joys during Covid-enforced sequestration.
.
Obituaries, the book’s final section, pays tribute to Werstein’s idols—Hank Aaron, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek. It also commemorates executed convict, Troy Davis. The piéce de resistance of this section is the charming “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” It cites the headline announcing the legendary child star’s demise and begins:
.
Let no alcohol be poured today.
Shirley Temple is dead at eighty-five.
.
Let us raise eponymous sweet concoctions
of fruit and bubbles and toast Clark Gable,
whose Hollywood star was eclipsed
by a six-year-old supernova
who earned 1,200 dollars a week
during the Depression.
.
Recommending that we honor Shirley’s memory as contemporaries did by imitating her hairstyle, donning sailor suit and tap dance shoes, and becoming “ambassador to foreign lands,” the mourner concludes,
.
Shirley Temple is dead at almost eighty-six.
The Good Ship Lollipop has sailed the River Styx.
.
Communiqué’s unconventional, if not unique, amalgam of poetry and mass culture is a “people’s history” with something of value for nearly everybody. The poet makes what interests him tantalizing through finely honed paradox and sheer verbal legerdemain. Theodore Roethke told poets, “Get to your compulsions”; I had fun watching Ed Werstein display his. He examines contemporary phenomena such as global warming, income and racial inequality, and corporate control of government with provocative wit reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw.
.
.
Edward Morin is a poet, song writer and translator whose work has been published in Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner and three poetry collections including The Bold News of Birdcalls (2021).  His co-translations of contemporary poems from Greek, Chinese, and Arabic have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His book reviews have been published in Georgia Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Detroit News.
.
.
.

Advertisement