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After All the Flame

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley doubts that anyone ever wrote a poem immediately after winning a lottery.

“But when people are going through deep trouble and they’re very distraught, they’ll go in their room in a quiet place and they express their deep emotion on a piece of paper,” she said.

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Wesley speaks from experience. Much of her poetry expressing her emotions was forged in the deep trouble of Liberia’s civil war. The fourteen-year conflict has wasted her homeland and devastated her family, friends, and neighbors.

“I have seen my poetry heal me. Writing heals,” she said.

Wesley is continuing her recuperation at IUP, where she joined the faculty last fall and this spring is teaching poetry and creative writing.

Wesley grew up in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, but also experienced village life while attending boarding school at age eleven. She came to America in 1983, earned a master’s in English Education at Indiana University at Bloomington, and returned to Liberia in 1985. 

“Before the war, Liberia was the pacific place to be in Africa because of stability of government and strong ties to America,” she said. “I grew up not rich, but not really needy.

“The economy began to fall after the mid-’80s as the Samuel Doe government had problems managing the country,” she said. “By 1989, we knew the war was just a matter of time. The country was at the brink of a breakdown because of all the anger and the rivalry between government people and politicians.”

Her family heard of massacres elsewhere in the country. “Fighting began to engulf county after county,” she said. The fighting killed some of her neighbors.

On July 2, 1990, the rebels entered Monrovia’s suburbs, and her family realized they would have to flee their home.

“The war will come and pass, and we will get a president and we will go back to our regular lives—that’s what we thought,” she said. “When the rockets were falling in my backyard and my house was shaking, that was the time we knew that everything we had was going to be blown up.”

One of the most disturbing images to come out of Liberia’s civil war was the widespread use of children as soldiers.

“A kid held me at gunpoint,” Wesley said. “A nine-year-old kid!”

Another child-soldier pulled her mother aside in a refugee camp and threatened to shoot her because he thought she was speaking the language of the enemy group. Patricia intervened and convinced him that her mother was speaking Grebo—an ethnic tongue of the people in southeastern Liberia.

The children were recruited by former president Charles Taylor’s forces, “and given drugs,” Wesley said.

“I saw daily… kids in a camp, carrying their weapons and arresting people and killing people,” she said.

"The books have some words directly from my language, words that are not translatable," she said. "English should have to bear my language, as well as my language bears English."

…Mothers dragged their young along Duport Road
looking for a decent burial ground.
There is no burial ground anymore.
In their shallow graves the corpses
dance Liberia’s cradles empty…
(from “War Children”)

The Wesleys fled their home, taking only what they could carry on foot, and stayed in refugee camps for four months. Peacekeeping forces eventually drove the rebels out of the city, but sporadic fighting continued.

In 1991, Wesley, her husband, and children emigrated to America, settling in Grand Rapids, Mich.

I bent down,
stooping.
Stepped aside.
Crawled
like a crab.
Snailed
into a shell.
I hid, a leech
under a green leaf.
I quit talking
quit breathing
quit laughing.
I waited
for the storm to pass.
(from “The Storm”)

Wesley taught at colleges and earned a doctorate in English before coming to IUP last year. She remembers starting to write as a child and becoming a poet at fourteen.

“Poetry became more significant for me during the war,” she said. “One time I was writing in a camp while they were bombing, and people would say, ‘Oh, this woman! You’re writing poetry while they are bombing?’ ”

Her poetry, and prayer, helped get her through the war years.

“I found it was easier for me to write a poem about a gruesome experience than to write prose about a gruesome experience,” she said.

Some of her poems have been collected into two books. Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa was published in 1998 by New Issues Press of Western Michigan University, and Becoming Ebony was published in 2003 by Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press.

Often her poetry takes final shape after midnight. “Most of my work is done when everybody is sleeping,” she said. “But one thing I encourage my creative writing students to do is to write whenever the idea comes… So I write whenever I have an idea.

“I write in English, but some of them are very traditional, and you can tell that they are written from my Grebo brain.”

Both of her published collections contain glossaries. “The books have some words directly from my language, words that are not translatable,” she said. “English should have to bear my language, as well as my language bears English.”

She cannot choose a favorite among her poems. “Writing is like having five children—and trying to pick a favorite one,” she said. “‘Becoming Ebony’ is a poem that I love because of its closeness to my memory of my mother… Sometimes I love my poetry that speaks to my tradition, and actually is written out of my ethnicity.”

She feels no guilt over leaving her homeland. “If everybody remained in Liberia, it’s possible that everybody would be killed,” she said. “And then nobody would be there to help the others who will survive. I see myself as one of those people who is set aside to live so that life will go on in the future.

“Having left gave me the opportunity to be in America, where I was safe and could have the opportunity of publishing my books and using my anger and my bitterness, putting my anger and bitterness into poetry, and helping the Liberian people get recognition... I felt blessed that I had the opportunity of existing in both worlds,” Wesley said.

“There are Liberians who fled before the war reached the towns, so they do not have a sense of the history of the violence. I and my family stayed until the entire country was overrun. I saw myself as being privileged to have seen the evil that war can bring. I saw my neighbors killed. I saw my neighbors kill neighbors. I saw the worst. And then I saw the best. I saw how people can live together in a tight space with nothing—and still care about each other.”

…Today you
looked at me, and said how beautiful I had become
in the war. And when the night came, we fell asleep
listening to the shooting outside. You said you loved me
even though you saw what I did not see. And sitting
in the crowded camp, we held hands tight, waiting,
praying…
laughing at ourselves over
and over, our new eating habits, our new bathing habits,
our new songs, days handed to us in brief interrupted
installments…
(from “For My Husband”)

But, Wesley is not obsessed with war. In her poetry she also observes and celebrates the small details of everyday life, in Liberia and America.

“It’s going to take twenty to thirty years to reconstruct Liberia,” she said. “I see myself going back to live” there, and perhaps leading groups of Christian students to work there.

I know the feeling
after all the flame and the smoke, after a long rainy night,
at dawn, the burnt shells of snails, the charred corpses
of  scorpions, the forest fire, now quenched.
Trust me—we will return home someday, trust me.
(from “I Am Acquainted with Waiting”)

Randy Wells ’84 is a reporter at the Indiana Gazette.

Please select for additional samples of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley's poetry.