The River Is Rising, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
In The River Is Rising(Autumn House Press), her compelling third book of poetry, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is a poet of location and dislocation. Poets, of course, love to evoke place, but Wesley does so more than most, down to surveying the geography. In the title work, for instance, set in her native Liberia, "River banks are swelling with the incoming tide, / coming in from the Atlantic just beyond the ridge / of rolling hills and rocks in Monrovia."
Perhaps it's the necessity of transience in her life that informs Wesley's sensitivity to place. In 1990, she and her husband fled her homeland's brutal civil war, landing in Michigan; she now teaches at Penn State's Altoona campus, and still writes of "the disappearing people we are." A couple poems even take place on airplanes, with Wesley thankful for reassuringly experienced flight attendants, who are "reliable as water down / the throat of a canal."
While most of the poems in this 109-page collection are narrative, Wesley's tonal range is impressive, showcasing easy wit (describing a church woman who "will weep and scramble around for a napkin / all over again, weeping about the sins she's / planning to commit tomorrow") alongside the scorchingly humane protest of the death-penalty poem "Bringing Closure." And the very funny "When My Daughter Tells Me She Has a Boyfriend" -- at once a sardonic look at herself, a lament for lost ways, and a chronicle of cultural change -- is successfully followed by the white-hot anger and sadness of "Monrovia Revisited": "You should come here if you want / to know how sacred / pain can be."
Indeed, what's perhaps most memorable here is Monrovia, as revisited time and again in memory. Indelibly, Wesley limns the grief of war ("Our warlord tells us we cannot wail or mourn," she writes in "All Dirges Have Ceased") and what it's like returning to a war-ravaged house: "I watched the sun come in, through cracked glass / of windows, through the holes in the walls, where / only missile splinters could have passed -- / But I was home again."
Occasionally, Wesley's reach exceeds her grasp; in "Memories," an attempt to illuminate the immigrant experience through a moment in a small-town grocery, she can't quite convince us the event is large enough to contain her ambition for it.
But on the whole, The River Is Rising is rewarding, and seldom more so than in its concluding section, titled "Woman." There, Wesley recalls her formative years in Africa, a personal history woven with mystery, story and ritual. Yet even in going home to a rich and tranquil time, she brings the section to a point in the closing verse, "Broken World," a reflection on cultural displacement and metamorphosis: "Sometimes, I can feel / my skin slowly becoming American."
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley reads with Sheryl St. Germain 7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 15. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600