“We just extended our daylight hours,” Liberian poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley explains in “A Letter to My Brother Coming to America.”
Our houses stand in silent rows here in Kalamazoo.
When I can almost hear the breeze pass, I wonder,
did a neighbor die, move away? Get a divorce?
Get married? Do they have children?
Do they not have children? Is my neighbor
white or black? Would my neighbors like me
if they knew my name? Do I have a neighbor?
These are in-between poems, poems of exile from a war-torn but still longed-for homeland. Driving the winding roads through the Alleghenies of upstate New York with her friend Sandy, she notes, “we’re in a maze.”
Sandy says when the trees
come out, this place is a paradise, but this year
the snow was forever falling. When the trees
come out, tell the trees, Sandy, to make the flowers
white and purple; to mourn the life, lost, the laughter
in Morovia’s streets, of people in the market places
and on the long beaches…
Wesley and her family endured privations and were witnesses to their share of horrors before they got out of Liberia. The refugee camp was right next to a killing field, and was suffused with the stench of rotting bodies.
We ate leaves we did not know we could eat;
we ate anyway, and lived through eating. We tried this
or that to see if we would die eating this or that.
We made laughter we did not know we had.
But I found the poems about her childhood before the civil war the most affecting of all. In “Requiem for Auntie,” she describes a household stricken by grief. It’s twilight, and the tidal river’s “tireless going and coming// leaves one empty of words.” Her aunt’s body is laid out in the parlor.
I watched my father’s fruitless making
of the bed, laying his youngest sister down, though
wide-eyed, she stared. What is she looking at, I
wanted to ask someone. What is it that the dead see,
that the living cannot know? My father stood there like
a wet bird standing in the stillness of shallow water.
In another poem, she recounts “The day I discovered Marie Antoinette” at the age of fourteen, “a hard-willed African girl,” and felt outraged on her behalf. “I wept — it was not fair.” She concluded,
How fortunate to be a concubine, to be the other
woman who didn’t have to carry the world’s guilt to
the gallows. The look on their faces, those pretty French
girls, their half smiles and grins, their tearless cheeks,
and how lucky to be left outside history like this.
But how fortunate we are to have a poet like Wesley, who, though she was not left completely outside history, still managed to escape with her life, her sense of humor, and these poems so full of both.
I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.