The Silence the Dead Refuse to Take
Though Jabbeh Wesley is not as demanding of her readers as Levi is of his, her testimonies are no less morally urgent. She too understands the importance of defeating the tyranny of silence. In the poem, “Requiem for Auntie,” from the collection, Becoming Ebony,30 she takes us through a maze of relationships between the dead and the living. The poem is spoken from the perspective of a little girl observing the body of her aunt. The first stanza begins with a general observation, but then quickly narrows to a particular person’s experience, to the girl’s perspective:
When the dead first arrive in death, their eyes stand naked and wide and bare to the bone. This gaze numbed my girl eyes the day they brought my Auntie home... 31
The reference to nakedness suggests the closure in the dead person’s existence; at the same time, it recalls its parallel opposite: the fact that the living still have opportunities. The dead person’s gaze constitutes a direct challenge to the girl, who is literally shocked into the realization of her own good fortune at being alive and of the possibilities open to her. In this short, powerful moment, there is an unspoken dialogue between the deceased and the bereaved, between an aunt and her niece; there is a simultaneous negotiation between nakedness and the urgent moral call to clothe that nakedness. The affinity between the dead aunt and her living niece is as much a moment of feminine solidarity as it is a universal experience of sympathy with the weak or with people in pain, as Susan Feagin suggested above. By the end of the poem, the speaker, the little girl, has grown into a woman with a profound sense of responsibility, and here meditations on the mysteries of the world are based on, or, inspired by, her original experience as a child:
The mysteries of this world are not in the living.
The mysteries of this world are in the dead cold of death, in the weathered things of this world, in the silence that the dead refuse to take along... 32
In her musings, the niece reveals that her aunt has left something with her: the silence she refused to take along to the grave. That silence, like all silence about human suffering, is oppressive, and it urges the niece to do something. The niece therefore has the obligation to end the tyranny of silence and her aunt’s helplessness by bearing testimony, by telling us about her aunt. In her requiem, her aunt, now standing for all the dead, speaks through her niece. The panorama that Jabbeh Wesley paints here calls to mind Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of Levi’s memoirs, cited above.
In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi recounts how the inmates of the camps used the word Muselmann33 to designate those so debilitated by hunger and sickness that they resembled the living dead more than human beings. Giorgio Agamben describes them as comparable to the body “of the overcomatose person and the neomort attached to life-support systems today.”34 The existence of nearly every so-called Muselmann ended in the gas chamber. For Agamben, even though those who were eventually led to the gas chambers were the perfect witnesses of the evils of the Holocaust, they cannot bear witness because they took their experience to the grave. Agamben argues that a life that has become “bare, unassignable and unwitnessable” is not necessarily condemned to silence.35 However, the only way it can speak is through the survivor, through the witness, whose authority “consists in his capacity to speak solely in the name of an incapacity to speak—that is, in his or her being a subject.”36 In light of Agamben’s explanation, we understand that Levi, who barely survived extermination, speaks not just for himself, but also on behalf of all those who did not survive. Testimony consists of any action taken by the survivor of violence to ensure that the Muselmann is not forgotten. Agamben argues that:
it is because there is testimony only where there is an impossibility of speaking, because there is a witness only where there has been desubjectifi- cation, that the Muselmann is the complete witness and that the survivor and the Muselmann cannot be split apart.37
Of particular relevance is this fact, that the survivor and the Muselmann cannot be separated. This fusion attests to the moral power of witnessing by binding the dead with the living, the privileged with the underprivileged. In speaking for those incapable of speaking, the survivor becomes one with the victim. What has this to do with women’s writing and human rights? In Chapter 7, I argued that women are uniquely positioned to be the avatars of human rights because of their experience of pain from the system designed to exploit them. We can understand Agamben’s idea that the survivor and Muselmann cannot be split apart in the above light. Those who have survived human rights abuses are welded together with the victims in the act of witnessing. The survivors have the obligation to speak out. The little girl in “Requiem for Auntie” can be understood as metonymic of the women writers who speak of abuses of women’s rights. In being drawn into her aunt’s world, in speaking about her, the niece’s life can no longer be separated from that of her aunt. In the same way, the survivors of the Liberian war can no longer be separated from the dead. They are bound by a common fate, by the open wound of being, a wound which the poet, in line with Aristotelian thinking, seeks to heal.
Jabbeh Wesley is to Liberia what Levi is to the survivors of the Holocaust. She speaks through her characters, including the girl in “Requiem for Auntie,” and lets us know that the survivor who turns his back on the dead will eventually be confronted with the moral vacuity of his existence. This awareness is enhanced by the experience of the speaker in “Coming Home to Iyeeh” from Becoming Ebony.38 The speaker is the “child that wanders [and who] comes home only to graves.” The poem reveals a tone of regret in the speaker who has been away from his homeland for a long time, and who never cared to find out what became of those who were lost. But it is now time for mourning, for paying respect to the dead:
Every teardrop falling, every dirge sung, every wail or moan or sigh... all the drumming and praise songs must be hers.
Iyeeh, Mother, Khadi Wheh, Wahnjeh, we praise you— it is your children who now praise you... your wandering stranger-children now coming home.
Where there are trumpets, they will sound.
We do not pour libation with ancestral hands or gourds.39
Jabbeh Wesley insinuates an atmosphere of moral urgency. The survivors who turn their back to their past are traitors. They refuse to bear witness to the suffering of their people. She seems to suggest that in regard to morality, the degree to which we relate to the innocent dead parallels the degree to which we relate to the living. The River Is Rising is,40 of Jabbeh Wesley’s four collections, the one most directly occupied with the memories of the dead by making an urgent moral plea. The poet provides specific details of the Liberian wars, and even names that ultimately confer humanity on places and incidents, and therefore bring them closer to the reader’s axis of empathy. In the title poem, “The River is Rising,” the image of a river stands for the ebb and flow of memory. The speaker announces that the river is “swelling with the incoming tide” and people, the speaker included, “stand at the banks” as witnesses to what the rising river will bring. Of course the rising river brings with it crabs and clams and shrimps, but the speaker’s description of what they call the “river’s creatures” describes much more than these natural inhabitants of the river.
The refrain, “The river is rising, but this is not a flood” is designed to calm those who stand by the river waiting for what will be washed up. The rising river will not sweep them away. Rather they should watch for what it has to show them, besides the life it contains:
Do not let your eye wander away from this scene Yes, all bones below the Mesurado or the St. Paul or Sinoe or the Loffa River will be brought up to land so all the overwhelming questions can once more overwhelm us.41
We do not have answers to the overwhelming questions that the washed- up remains will raise, nor are the questions themselves revealed to the readers. They are left to the imagination, which at this stage has probably already been shocked into pity and fear. Being overwhelmed by questions about life implies experiencing an Aristotelian catharsis after which one’s life can never return to what it had always been. But it will be a testimony to the humanity of the bystanders if they are overwhelmed by what they see, because the remains are not part of the “river’s creatures”; human bones are not supposed to be washed up by rivers. This human wreckage could only have been the product of atrocities, and the tide of the river bears witness to them.
The history of Liberia is rife with instances of brutalities against innocent people. We recall the British and American-sponsored colonization of the nineteenth century as well as the brutal regimes and wars of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor. The Mesurado, the Loffa, and other rivers must have born witness to those crimes. All of the victims we can imagine come together in the person of “a lost sister” washed up by the rivers, and who stands at the bank “waving at those /who in refusing to die, simply refuse to die.” The redundancy in the phrase is designed to underscore the stubbornness of the dead. The dead refuse to die. They are the ones who literally set the rivers moving; however, with the help of their currents, they make their way to the feet of the living. The rivers are their vehicles. By being washed up into the memory of the living, they become one with the survivors—those who, in their own way, also refused to die.
The idea that the dead trouble the living sums up the moral goals of the women writers discussed thus far in regard to their concern with the human rights in society.
In a generous communal spirit, the speaker reminds us that the song is not for “Ellen alone.” It is also a song “for Mapue and Tenneh and all the Ellens there are.” It is also a song for Kimah and Musu and Massa and the many others. The poet, in having her speaker invoke names belonging to many ethnic groups, makes a gesture ofinclusion; she casts the net of her community wide and reminds all Liberians that the healing duty of memory is for all. Healing cannot be partial. Healing that is not total or inclusive is, in effect, an oxymoron. It inflicts more wounds.
The last stanza, “Let no man stand between us /and the river again” hints at the necessity for all to confront the devastating evidence, which has raised overwhelming questions. No one should stand between people and what is remembered; if people lose sight of the latter, they will no longer grieve for the dead, and the failure to grieve, as is implied in Levi’s testimonies, derides the living and makes the recurrence of war atrocities possible. Little surprise then that Jabbeh Wesley declared in the interview mentioned above that poetry was an outlet for her grief.