By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley has survived a civil war that killed a quarter of a million people and lasted nearly eight years. She’s lived through cancer. She’s thrived while emigrating from Liberia, making a life in small-town northern Appalachia, and navigating in America as a Black woman. All these moments were mined to make Praise Song for My Children (Autumn House Press), a stunning collection of new and selected poems.
“It starts with experience. It always starts with experience. And place, wherever I am and what situation is happening around me — triggers an imaginative reaction that ends up being a poem. Almost all of my poems are inspired by the moment,” she said.
Given some of the circumstances (civil war, cancer), you might think Wesley’s poetry would be bleak and hard. Some pieces do sear the reader with precision and rare humanity, but there is also joy and humor. This collection can break you. It can also make you laugh out loud.
Wesley wouldn’t have it any other way. With an easy laugh, she recalled the moment in an airport when she just kept beeping and threatened to get completely naked in order to navigate security. That moment turned into ‘TSA,’ a hilarious take on the steps and leaps we take and have come to take for granted. Let’s face it — we’ve all been there.
It is hard to not talk about the pandemic these days. We don’t know how long it will last, who will be left standing, and what our world will look like when this is over. Wesley’s equanimity is hard-earned. “There is so much similarity between the pandemic and what I went through in war. We were in quarantine. We were in quarantine,” she said.
“I look at people demonstrating and saying that they want to open up … When you are quarantined by war? The bombs and the missiles falling on your neighbors homes and you have to evacuate and go into the bushes? That is putting your life on hold. I’ve gone through it before. I’ve been able to be quarantined.”
Born and raised in Liberia, Wesley has taught English and creative writing in Western Pennsylvania for 18 years (a year at IUP and the past 17 at Penn State Altoona.) She writes about this corner of the world — her neighbors and her neighborhood and the region where she now lives. And she writes about her childhood, her ancestors, her life as a poet and a person trying to survive a civil war.
The collection leads off with ‘Some of Us Are Made of Steel,’ where it feels like Liberia and Western Pennsylvania are folded together in her capable hands: “But in our tears, salt, healing, salty, and forever, / we are forever. Yes, some of us are forever.”
There is strength in pain, the rivers are forever, and the women endure. From the moment she shirked her childhood chores in Monrovia and instead picked up a pencil to craft a poem for her father, Wesley carved out her own space, a place where she can endure and witness and shape her world.
‘They Killed a Black Man in Brooklyn Today,’ is a gift. It is Wesley rushing into a riptide to save a life; it is defiant survival in the face of a world that doesn’t value you.
“When my phone alerts me, / I feel my belly button turning hot. / My legs buckled and I could not feel my own / fingers trembling around / the curves of my phone. / Suddenly, I forget my son’s number. / I forget the way to call my own son in Brooklyn. / My mind tells me it cannot recall / how to push the buttons so my Brooklyn black / son can assure me / that he is not dead.”
During readings of this poem, the place would fall as silent as a forest in a deep snowfall.
“My pastor said, when you read this poem, do white people hate you? I said, I don’t know. Some white people like me and some white people hate me. I don’t know how much impact the poem has on them, but you see, I don’t care. I don’t care, because it’s exploring something that is true,” she remembered. In honesty, this could be said of all of her work: it cuts deep because it has such backbone and authenticity.
As people take to the streets to protest police violence and protest the deaths of so many Black men and women, this poem feels like it could have been written last week. It could have been written in 1995. Or 2019. Or yesterday. Or really, just about any day in America.
“As an immigrant, from Africa, the issue of racism, I don’t have the same experience of someone who was born and raised in America. But, I think this time we are in has changed — especially with the government we have — it has changed how I look at race in my poetics. I think I am going to explore more of my experience with racism in my poetry,” Wesley said.