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Jabbeh Wesley’s Poetics of Attention

My discussion of Jabbeh Wesley’s poetics is based on the poems that, in my view, best demonstrate what I have already identified as the ethical thrust of her writing, the remembrance of human rights abuses. Jabbeh Wesley writes in the tradition of Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy discussed above. In her faithful rendition of the observed world, she imitates people’s action in pleasurable language with the ultimate goal of affecting the reader. Avoiding flashy, contrived strategies, her poems operate within what Donald Revell calls the poetry of attention. They trust “the opened eye to see.”23 For Revell the “poetry of attention proceeds not by acquisition but, rather, by plain accumulation. It doesn’t add up; it goes. I see the light, but seeing doesn’t make it mine.”24

The title of Jabbeh Wesley’s fourth collection of poetry, Where the Road Turns2 is a subtle allusion to Wole Soyinka’s 1965 play, The Road, and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road. These two books explore the riches of Yoruba mythology in order to shed light on the African condition. The characters in Soyinka’s play live on the road and make their living from what it has to offer. There are some absurdist elements in Soyinka’s conception of the road as a metaphor of Africa’s instability, especially in the play’s parallel with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. What is said of The Road also applies to Jabbeh Wesley’s Where the Road Turns. Aided by the picture of the winding dirt road on the cover and at the beginning of each of the book’s four sections, Jabbeh Wesley reminds us of the twisting road of Africa’s existential journeys. The eponymous poem itself is representative of the poetry of attention:

I’m right here on the road, in the open You will find me waiting where Gbarnga’s hills curve into zigzags, and cars slow down because potholes have taken over the road, because potholes have taken over my life.26

The detailed description of the place where a lonely speaker waits enables us to see what the speaker sees: a crumbling world. We are even more troubled by the fact that the speaker sees a parallel between himself or herself and the road: “Potholes have taken over my life,” just as they have taken over the road. This identification of one’s self with the road is to be understood as a lamentation for the conditions of the speaker’s life, and not as romanticizing the rural life of Africa.

The road in an unnamed country in Africa is representative of the condition of the entire continent; the speaker stands for its dispossessed, abused people. According to Mark Doty, the National Book Awardwinning poet and critic, “every achieved poem inscribes a perceptual signature in the world.”27 “Where the Road Turns” achieves just that.

We are confronted with an environment that persists in our inner vision. For Doty:

What descriptions—or good ones, anyway—actually describe then is consciousness, the mind playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking.28

In the achieved poem, therefore, we are made to confront not only the world of the speaker, but also his consciousness, and ultimately that of the poet. By presenting this decayed part of the African world, the poet wants us to be troubled the way she has been. Indeed, the first poem in the collection, “Cheede, My Bride: A Grebo Man Laments— 1985” appears to have set the consciousness-raising tone for the rest of the poems.

While we sleep, jumbo trucks haul timber to build needle houses and monkey bridges across the skies in some city far away.

One day my wife, Cheede, will run away to Monrovia, that swallows its victims whole down boa-constrictor bellies.29

We meet a mind grappling with a world that is being ruthlessly exploited. The exploitation of the world plays itself out in the lives of the people, as the second stanza reveals. One is reminded of Africa’s struggles with neoimperialism. Its natural resources are being used for the development of other parts of the world. Such exploitation contributes to the implosion of different units of African life: the family, the village, the county, the city, and the country. What this and other poems aim to achieve, therefore, is to raise our consciousness of the precariousness of the African world as seen from Liberia. This is the most that poets or tragedians can do, and they do so in the knowledge or the hope that the audience or the reader will be moved to relate to that world, as Aristotle might have anticipated.

 
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