Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley
Praise Song For My Children
New and Selected Poems
by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh
ISBN: 978-1-938769-50-4. 218 pp. March 2020
Both the spirit and imprint of her Liberian homeland resonate in Patricia Jabbeh Wesley’s sixth collection, Praise Song for My Children. Spanning publication years 1998 – 2020, Wesley’s oeuvre highlights the challenging lives of immigrants while honoring the poet’s ethnic Grebo culture. Depiction of cruel outcomes of the Liberian Civil War bring history to life as she strives to make sure memories are not lost.
In an April 2015 Conversations from Penn State, Wesley associated her affinity for storytelling with her Grebo people, adding that “I don’t like things to go unrecorded.” She and her husband fled the Liberian Civil War in 1991. When asked about an ongoing memoir project, she noted that she was able to write poems “on the run but you can’t write prose on the run.” Currently, she is a Creative Writing and African Studies professor at Penn State Altoona. Although she has said in an interview that other people suffered more than she did during the Liberian Civil War, she also has also stated that it does get students’ thoughtful attention when she tells them “I have literally walked over the dead to get to America.”
Wesley’s poetic, academic, and humanitarian endeavors revolve around women’s rights and the African Diaspora while recording Liberian women’s trauma stories, particularly about the six-year Liberian Civil War (1989-1996.) The book and poem title “Praise Song for My Children,” may refer to her own children who were born in America as well as to her past students in Liberia and present-day students in America. With a strong sense of homeland, the title poem intones, “Let me be your Mama Africa” and declares:
Let me come to you at dawn, my children,
my calabash, wet from the early dawn’s
water-fetching-run, my lappa, wet from the brush,
from the cry of old pepper birds,
the owl’s howling, from the old footpaths lost
to the wanderer’s feet.
Let me come to you bearing tears on my face
after the war, after the villages have crumbled
under the weight of grave hate.
Early into Wesley’s poems, it becomes apparent that they reverberate with anaphora and repetition, almost as if in choral and/or Biblical refrain. Using the natural Liberian landscape in extended metaphors regarding water, river, and trees, this poet also includes native Grebo customs and language. In considering the speaker’s high school boyfriend in “Maybe,” Wesley projects “That he was not for you, that he would fail / like limbs of trees.’
Peppered throughout the book are names of people, plants, foods, customs, and landmarks of her homeland that place the reader in Liberia wherever the poet is speaking from. This busy woman offers “Poem Written In My Doctor’s Office” as she “juggle(s) children, husband, my life / of teaching, writing, reading useless emails.” In a dream she is beckoned home, where “At the doorposts, the kola nut is growing and bleeding / in Iyeeh’s [grandmother’s] kola-nut bowl, where the kola nut has grown // small limbs as the old hometown awaits my return.”
Her detailed glossary at the end of the book adds cultural background not available via simple internet search. If one would like to read or hear Wesley in interview or presenting poems, there is much online to augment reading of this fine book.
The book begins with a section of new poems and moves back through Wesley’s five prior poetry collections, all published after her immigration to America. The new poems include socio-political poems from an American devastated by the 2016 election and by fears for black males in America. In the poem, “They Killed a Black Man in Brooklyn Today,” she thinks of other mothers as well as of her own son, “To be a black woman is to be a woman, / ready to mourn.” This immigrant observer points out American cultural hypocrisy:
in America, where we must stop our car
so a squirrel can cross a busy highway.
But another policeman in America
has just killed another one of our sons
Wesley writes moving and lyrical personal poems. Some allude to the speaker being unable to visit her dying father because she herself was being treated for cancer. We read of this man who persuaded his daughter to pursue higher education in “A Poem For My Father.” Frustration, humor, and appreciation seem intermingled with “Me, his oldest girl child who was supposed / to be a man. As if God won’t let Pa into Heaven / without a family PhD.” There is a poem about visiting that father’s grave in the poem, “November 12, 2015:”
where the soil still holds onto my umbilical cord,
buried in the hills of Dolokeh, home, and Monrovia,
where my father’s grave awaits my return
so I can kneel and cry and pray, and tell him how
sometimes, I am so lonely in this far away country,
I want to walk and walk and walk and walk
and walk until I’m back home again.
Becoming a parent in America and raising children in a new culture, Wesley writes a poem to her first teenager in America. Many parents who have raised children on new soil might identify with “This is What I Tell My Daughter.” The speaker predicts what would have been her and her daughter’s plights if they had lived in Liberia. To goad a daughter to avoid an early pregnancy, we read “This is how I scare my daughter.” The speaker reports “all the boys knew how to get a girl pregnant” and that “I would’ve had ten children before you were born” if not for her father “scaring boys away.”
In an adjacent poem, “M-T, Turning Thirteen,” about her son, she describes a son with earphones hanging from wires, like “umbilical cords,” then equates labor pains of birth to delivering a teen into the world:
will conquer us all just the same. We scream,
“I can’t do it anymore – I can-not –push!”
My son, M-T, has just been admitted into
the world, where teenagers live.
One gets the feeling reading Wesley’s poems that this immigrant family experienced loneliness and didn’t feel welcome when her children were young and poor in Michigan. Years later, the poet introduces her college age daughter to her new home in Pittsburgh in the second poem named “Coming Home.” She writes that “Michigan haunts the holidays” and “one by one, our children, who will never know // where we really come from, are leaving only to come / back to decorative lights.”
When Wesley presents “Child Soldier” in the last section of the book, devastation wrought by the war really settles in, as “Our war children, / who follow men who have lost all reason.” These lines speak to the universal despair regarding war. This poet bears witness and repeats, because “History will want to know.”
Images of ghosts recur throughout the collection. The ghosts of a difficult early immigrant life in Michigan as well as the ghosts of horrific experiences escaping the Liberian Civil War haunt many of Wesley’s poems. When images of nature are used, such as ocean, river and trees, they often serve as metaphors. Several other strong themes of home and waiting arise throughout the book. In the poem, “While I Wait For The War,” she writes that “My children swallow / fufu in spicy pepper soup, then stand there, / rocking to American Hip-Hop, while I wait for the war.” Her children who have mainly experienced the Liberian Civil War via their mother’s and refugee memories, grow up “Without Iyeeh’s [grandmother’s] spider tales / weaving a hundred webs / from which any of us may dangle free.”
This book of poetry is part of Wesley’s mission to bear witness to the pain in her homeland. With her family’s good fortune to live in America, she writes of children in the poem, “This Is The Real Leaving,” that “They may never know / why I’m angry that there’s food in my fridge // while others starve.” In the first poem titled “Coming Home” Wesley writes:
They say the war is over, but the poor still groan.
The land groans. From the earth,
hot mist rises out of bloody ground,
out of landfills of carcasses of the war,
and the people
in their forever poverty,
return from war, where some of them
have left their legs and arms and hearts and hope.
The people have returned,
poorer than the red ant.
The death of a mother and a tree metaphor evoke tender hope. In “Becoming Ebony,” the speaker recalls when she “waited at the window to see / if the sun would come in” because of the “uncertainty of waiting so a moment will / undo itself, to undo that dreaded call, to undo death.” This refers to heritage bequeathed by parents as well as by ethnic culture. Comparing her mother as “wood becomes marble,” Wesley writes that “The ebony knows how brief color is – / when sap licks itself dry into rough threads of wood. // They say after the sap is gone, then comes strength.” This suggests resilience of women and heritage to future generations!
By the time we have finished reading Praise Songs For My Children, Wesley has commemorated those who have died, and those who have survived to build new lives while missing homeland. This poet has written a book of memory that honors her family and her ethnic heritage while bearing witness to the horrors and lasting effects of war.
This inspiring collection comes full circle and ends with the gift of resilient hope. The final poem in the book, “Homecoming,” repeats the theme from the title of the book. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley reiterates, “I don’t want to stay / the wanderer.” Let us raise metaphorical kola-nut bowls and join her in celebrating personal and cultural resiliency as she intones:
Let them raise hands
for sparing some of us.
When I come home,
I want to be treated
to welcoming songs of praise.
Do not forget my names.
I want my praise names
recited to incessant drumming.
About the reviewer: Mary Ellen Talley’s reviews have been published in Colorado Review and Compulsive Reader as well as forthcoming in Sugar House Review and Crab Creek Review. Widely published in journals such as Raven Chronicles, U City Review and Ekphrastic Review as well as in several anthologies, her poems have received two Pushcart nominations.