NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The River Is Rising by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2007)
Where The Road Turns by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2010)
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is a survivor of the Liberian civil war, a Grebo from Maryland County, Southeastern Liberia and an internationally celebrated Liberian poet. To many, she is the voice of Liberia, speaking up for its people, preserving something of its chequered history for future generations, recording the oral tradition she grew up on, the proverbs, fables and common sayings from her own particular culture and bringing them to the attention of the wider listening world. Now living in America, she teaches English, Creative Writing and African Literature at Penn State University in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her family.
In a recent conversation with Nvasekie N. Konneh, Wesley sums up much of the thematic material that informs her poetry. “I have written much and still do write about the Liberian experience of the civil war, the massacres our people experienced, the suffering I saw, the death of children, the use of children as soldiers, the destruction of our country and more. I also write about my family, my children, bringing up children, living in the Diaspora, the difficulty of being uprooted from my homeland, etc…”
Most of the poems in The River Is Rising follow some kind of narrative. Most are conversational in tone and are therefore immediately accessible. Whether or not this always works well as poetry is, however, open to debate.
War and the memory of war dominate this book. The book celebrates those who have survived the war and it also celebrates the fallen. It is a book set in two very different contexts which straddles the divide between two very different cultures. The Atlantic Ocean is used as a point of reference to bind together the threads of a life lived on two continents. Stretches of water are prominent in this volume, whether the Atlantic itself, Lake Michigan or Noah’s Flood.
The image of the jetliner as a means of escape is dramatically portrayed in August 11, 2003 (a powerful political poem about the moment Charles Taylor, President of Liberia, left the country to go into exile in Nigeria):
Someone has decided he should leave on a plane,
not by drowning or by a bullet, not by
an explosion or an execution…
The memory and fear of “Nine eleven” is powerfully conveyed in One of These Days We Should Give Her a Medal –a tribute to the bravery of the air stewardesses who risk their lives on a daily basis, the ones who are as
reliable as water down
the throat of a canal…
Written as if to a single stewardess, but representative of all of them, she is the one who
Stood on air so many
years, it became solid ground
beneath her large feet.
One of these days, we should give her
a medal. We should all line up beside
the plane upon landing, and give
her the Bronze Star for not
letting us drown
in the Atlantic.
Many of the poems take the form of lamentations, dirges, elegies, etc. Some are set within a Biblical framework.
Some poems work by contrasting one thing with another: Christmas in war time and not in war time; America / Liberia; sometimes Wesley places one layer of story over another.Her themes range from the political (in relation to Liberia) to the domestic (taking possession of a new home, a daughter coming home from university during the holidays). There are poems about the futility of death, the loneliness of living in exile and the church as a place of belonging.
There is the sense that the heart is always in two places: the new home and the old home and it is the tension between the two that so often provides the catalyst for her most powerful work. In At Point Loma Wesley writes:
….This sort of place makes my soul cry
for that other shoreline so far away, where home sits
by the sea, waiting, too, where the ocean is wild and hot.
In Coming Home: for Bessie-Nyesuah she says:
…In America, we are the new nomads,
the wanderers coming home or looking to make
home or running away from home among new people,
and, one by one, our children, who will never know
where we really come from, are leaving only to come
back to decorative lights…
Explanatory notes would have been welcome on Grebo traditions and culture to aid a better appreciation and understanding of some of the poems. The same could be said for certain foreign words – the word lappa, for example, appears quite a few times throughout the text. It is not listed in any of my sizeable dictionaries and so I am still ignorant as to its exact meaning. The poem entitled Mammie Wata really caught my imagination but I would have appreciated some explanation at the end. Who is, or was, Mammie Wata?
Wesley’s voice is more assured and more powerful, in her latest volume, Where the Road Turns. Like its predecessor, it is divided more or less equally into four distinct parts: Love Songs; Taboos; Wanderings and Tomorrow. In the first section, there are love songs addressed to her husband, to lost moments of youth, to a lover lost at sea and there is even one addressed to those who are newly-divorced. One of my favourites is Woman Praying – a cleverly conceived piece of writing where the menagerie of animals provide a structured accompaniment through which the poem can travel. In this section, there is also a memorial for a special mentor – a much respected companion in the art of writing poetry in which we gain some insight into the importance Wesley attaches to finding her own original voice and the need to be true to one’s self. The poem, however, is also about much more than this – it is also about dying (and, by implication, the urgency to put down in writing some kind of legacy to preserve the past, perhaps).
Then I’d think to myself, God, he’s already dying,
this man, already dying.
The big sun, coming through your office window,
and I thought, everyone I know is dying
all the time; dying or getting ready to die
or planning to die.
Reflections on death can, however, take a lighter turn, as in the poem Everyone Should Die on a Friday where Wesley concludes that
……….Tears from such sudden
dying should heal and mend the broken-hearted.
An insight into some of the customs of the Grebo people is given in These Are The Ways of Our People. Ghosts and the resurrection of ancestors also inhabit this section.
In this volume, Wesley returns to the theme of exile with a longing that is expressed succinctly in the short poem, Times Gone:
Seventeen years, and I’m exiled
My heart is longing
for the smell of mangoes,
Bananas and sour-saps,
ripened by the hot sunshine
A bird on a guava tree branch,
of times that will never come again.
The title poem Where the Road Turns is proof, if any were needed, that Wesley never gives up on her country of origin.
…I still wait here,
in the corner road, cutting, weeding,
watering already-sun-burnt plants, waiting
because someone told me that if I could
wait long enough, just long enough, things
will change; the government will change;
food will come for us refugees;
something will happen for my good…
Moving backwards and forwards between America and Africa, there is a poem in this section about New Orleans where the grandeur of the past is contrasted with the poverty of the present. Beneath the surface there is another voice that expresses how a people’s history can be so easily forgotten:
…I didn’t know
you could ride a streetcar on a sidewalk
and watch houses disappear into history.
I wanted to feel the years.
I wanted to holler until I cried or danced
through these colonial-mansion-streets
so the past would come flying out like
There is also this breathtakingly beautiful poem To My Infant Daughter Soon After Birth which is, among other things, a wonderful affirmation of life for a black baby girl where race and colour should be of no consequence:
…So don’t mind being
a small black baby girl born in a big white hospital
where ninety-nine point nine percent of all the babies
that came out this morning are white. Don’t mind,
baby girl, it is who you say you are that really matters.
Your life is in your own two hands, my child.
you are beautiful and smart, one lovely pearl out
of a huge ocean, with the whole world in your hands.
In the final section there are poems on birth and death, ageing and regret – all those significant moments in a person’s life which Wesley writes about so empathetically, such as the bittersweet It’s Too Late Now, a poem full of tender disappointment and, one senses, quiet resignation. It is at moments like this that Wesley finds her true lyrical voice.
As in the previous volume, Biblical narratives or phrases sometimes act as a baseline on which to construct a poem, e.g. The Queen of Sheba and the Wisdom of Solomon; To Be A Woman (set in the Garden of Eden) and Spring Is That Woman – a re-working of a passage from Matthew Ch 15 and Mark Ch 7. There is a wry sense of humour at play in Inequality in Hell but the book ends with A Blessing.
Wesley is a poet with a big heart. Her poems are born out of experience and they are unashamedly compassionate. They reach out and hold our attention in their warm, wide embrace.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014).