A Tar Pit to Dye In by Ed Werstein

A Tar Pit to Dye In by Ed Werstein. Kelsay Books, 2018.

Reviewed by Ashley Ehman

The saying goes, “There are two sides to every story.” My immediate question: why are there only two sides to a story? Is there not more to be said? I believe that Ed Werstein and I would agree on such a fact. Throughout his chapbook A Tar Pit to Dye In, he is constantly wavering on a line between the two sides; the living and the lost, the good and the bad, science and imagination. His pages discuss the black and white aspects of the world as they are explored through a flurry of greys. And there we are, the people inhabiting this world, existing as a herd of monochromatic sheep.

Upon delving further into the book, this theme of parallelism exists within the structure of the poems as well. A majority of his pieces are written in free verse, which lack any sort of firm rules to guide its shape. Werstein uniquely uses this fluid form to solidify his thoughts on the page. In “The Best We Can Hope For,” he again tackles the presence of duality in life, using happiness and sadness as his instruments. The poem explains:

An hourglass floating
horizontal
on an undulating sea
tilting sometimes toward
sometimes away
is the best we can hope for.

This poem explores life as an hourglass, where instead of two options, happy or unhappy, there is a varying degree that can occur between these extremes. The world does not exist as one or the other. The symbolism of the hourglass can also be connected to the constant theme of mortality.

The idea that we only live one life is present in all three sections of the book. An intriguing example takes form in the poem “Another Useless Headline Poem,” one of the few poems that has variety of repetitive shape. The poem begins:

I’ve been thinking about flesh
and blood
and guts
and bullets
and assaults
on our sanity.

This short phrasing continues into the next stanza. Initially, it would seem the author did this to enforce some sort of significance on his words, which is not entirely untrue. The context of the poem also plays into this. At the top of the page, there is an epigraph that reads “US Senate Response to Orlando: Nothing.” The only insight to what this could be referencing is in the date listed below: June 21, 2016. This article was published nine days after a shooter opened fire in a gay dance club. The name of the club? Pulse. Intentional or not, the breaking of his stanzas into shortened phrases gives the poem a ‘beating’ sound, much like the pulse of a heartbeat. This artistic styling shows that Werstein goes beyond the words of the page by using other elements to give meaning to his work.

While I could go on about how the author captures sarcasm with seriousness, humor with humility, and politics with perspective, I digress. Werstein used a variety of techniques to explain the world in a way that is unseen to the common eye. He has much to say, and captures this in a concise and interesting fashion that goes beyond the words on the page. His poems showcase a writing ability only met by someone who loves their craft. Even in his closing, he leaves the reader with one last parallel, a single written word: “Speak!”