Remembering as Confronting Meaninglessness
Remembering is a function of the meaning-making process after the emptiness of loss. Spelder and Strickland state that “grief is the emotional response to bereavement, to the event of loss.”42 The theologian Todd J. DuBose explains that “grief gazes at an ever-receding present as it moves further and further into the past. The immediate reaction often involves bargaining for a reversal of the loss, denial, anger, shock, anguish, distress, sadness.”43 These reactions are the body’s means of trying to make sense of the world in the wake of the emptiness created by bereavement. Interpreting Drew Leder and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasmic structure of the body, DuBose explains that the body realizes its existence only in relation to, or in reaching out to the external world, to other bodies. It touches because it is being touched. Other bodies make ours perceptible. The disappearance of these other bodies in death is, in tune with the chiasmic structure of bodily existence, the disappearance of our own bodies. We experience that disappearance as pain, grief, sorrow.
These manifestations of pain are, indeed, the ways our bodies adjust to a vacuum and fill it with meaning. For DuBose,
meaning-making processes, which appear to be immaterial processes, are embodied phenomena. Reflection, perception, feeling, language, even logic make sense only through the influx of the body’s “reading” of space, time,
action, and sensation.
The body invents some immaterial entities or gestures to take the place of the material loss; they include consolation, hope, and love, sometimes even hallucinations and fantasies. The memory of the departed keeps alive the grief of their loss and so confers the present with meaning. For Jabbeh Wesley therefore, to write poetry is to make sense of the dysfunctional world of Liberia. The grief in her works comes with memories, sauntering into the survivor’s consciousness like ghosts. Indeed, the persistence of ghosts is a metaphor for the persistence of the memory of the dead and for the attendant grief. This is particularly true in the poem, “Ghosts Don’t Go Away Just Like That” from Where the Road Turns.
Sometimes they lurk in hallways where they have lost the other side of them. They may hover over new wars like the wars that carried them away from their bodies, causing them to lose their world and us in the rush.
Ghosts don’t go away just like that, you know; they may come in that same huge crowd that was massacred together with them, and since that massacre may have happened at school, in a bar or at a church, they may be found, kneeling at the pulpit, singing and taking communion again and again, with everyone else.45
In her writing, Jabbeh Wesley performs rituals that acknowledge the existence of these ghosts in ways that bring peace not only to them, but also to the living. Might we interpret these ghosts as representing the absence of human rights? Ghosts, by implication, are the absence of bodies; they leave us to imagine what might have happened to those bodies. Bearing witness to oppression is comparable to grieving, a search for meaning. We fight abuse by creating meaning.
No other poem expresses the violence in Liberia during the civil war as does “An Elegy for the St. Peter’s Church Massacred” from The River is Rising. It is a poem that details the massacre of 600 men, women, and children at St. Peter’s Church, a horrible act that made international news.46 Over 200 soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) forced their way into the church and shot the people who had taken refuge there. For the speaker, the survival of such tragedies is more painful than death, and that is why he believes he is in a worse situation than the victims:
I envy those who were massacred.
Those who never saw their killers approach with heavy bootsteps that made no sound in the dark morning hours47
He also envies those people who died in the dark, who did not have to “see the faces of their murderers.” Perhaps the advantage to the dead in not glimpsing the faces of their murderers is that they will never realize the depravity of their fellow humans. It is this truth of human existence that the speaker, the survivor of the whole horror, has had to live with: “It is a sad story when one survives.” The speaker is perhaps feeling guilty of having survived the horrors that consumed others. One ofthe ways to assuage that guilt is to defy the silence that surrounds the horror. Through him the poet seems to put the survivors to shame and fill them with remorse.
Against the background of rampant violence, the most dramatic aspect of which was the massacre of those 600 unarmed civilians, we begin to understand the agony of a person searching for the members of his family in the poem, “Finding my Family” from Before the Palm Could Bloom.48 The speaker is a man who sets out in search of his children, his “big boy, Nyema,” and “the small one, Doeteh.” He asks a stranger if he saw “a mother walking by their side. ” Having lost hope of finding them alive, his tone changes from desperation to one of mourning:
Good friend, were they hungry when they met their end?
Oh, good friend, I will follow to wrap up their bones.
Thank you, good friend.
But how will I know their bones?49
Are we in a position to provide him with answers to his bewildering questions? Do we know where his wife and children are? These questions are designed to put us on the spot, to embarrass us. We feel shame in the comfort of our living rooms. In our helplessness, we might be tempted to point fingers. We know that the major culprits in the war are the warlords who may have conscripted his boys and killed his wife. But knowing the names of the warlords is not enough. That is not even what the speaker or the poet demands of us. The search, the questions addressed to an unnamed passer-by, one whom the speaker calls friend, is an open invitation to the reader to take the place of this distraught questioner. It is an ethical call to empathize in the manner that Levi urged in the epigraphic poem above. By switching perspectives, which is exactly what empathy achieves, by putting ourselves in the position of the sufferer, or, in this case, the grieving person, we begin to understand the devastation so completely as to be compelled to prevent its recurrence. This, to me, is at the core of Jabbeh Wesley’s poetics of testimony. She foresees that anyone capable of fully experiencing another’s pain will not likely stand by and allow that pain to be inflicted on others. It is true that the human tendency toward aggression offers no assurance that such shifts of perspective will prevent anyone from inflicting more pain on others. Yet the writer hopes that much can be achieved by keeping the consciousness of the human condition alive.
In “Child Soldier” from Before the Palm Could Bloom, the speaker erects a spiritual monument for the “war children /who follow men who have lost all reason.” Each of the poem’s six stanzas begins with, or is constructed around, a different name. These names—Saye, Ghapu, Kahieh, Nimley, Kortu, Wlemunga—are drawn from the different tribes and ethnicities in Liberia. Ghapu is a Bassa name meaning “light skinned” or “white man.” Nimley means “victor” or “I have survived.” Kortu means “end the war.”50
Of particular importance for Jabbeh Wesley’s ethical attitude toward Liberia and the world is not only the universal, cosmopolitan spirit that guided the poet’s choice of names, but also the fact that some of the names that might belong to one ethnic group were hybrids created from at least two languages and ethnicities. One such name is Nimley, which is both Grebo and Km. Grebo and Km, along with Bassa, are from the Kwa or Klao family of languages. These languages have common roots and are so intermeshed as to defy any search for linguistic purity. By choosing names from these language cultures, the poet raises the specter of wars of brothers against brothers. Given that these were child soldiers, the poet calls Africa’s attention not only to senseless fratricidal murder, but also the smothering of the future of Africa itself. The poet thus insinuates a question: Why bring children into a world where they will turn against their parents like Frankenstein’s creature? This idea of children turning against their parents is especially demonstrated by the existence of Dekuah, a spirit child, whose symbolic relevance we shall discuss more fully later.
In the poem “In the Ruined City: A Poem for Monrovia” from The River is Rising, the speaker laments the dearth of aesthetics and leisure.
There are no more trumpets or drums.
The Dorklor dancer who lost his legs in the war now sits by the roadside, waiting.
It is something to lose your legs to a war,
they say, to Charles Taylor’s ugly war,
where the fighter cannot recall why he still fights.51
The senselessness of Charles Taylor’s war is demonstrated in a particularly painful way through the suggestion that the soldiers no longer know why they fight. But our attention remains with the dancer who has now lost the means for his art, for that which gave meaning to his life. And he sits by the roadside waiting. What exactly is he waiting for? Does he wait in the same way that the speaker in “Where the Road Turns” does? With the dancer’s waiting, the poet leaves a hole in our hearts, a great longing symbolized by his missing limbs. We understand the missing limbs as the most visible scar of human rights abuse. But the man does not succumb to his condition; he searches for meaning, for love.
Jabbeh Wesley leaves us with more than just pictures of desolation in her poetics of testimony. Even as she explores the traumas of the war, she steers the reader’s attention to the Liberian people’s passion for life. In “I am Not Dekuah” from Before the Palm Could Bloom, the speaker addresses his/her clansmen:
Dieh, I come knocking Clansmen, I come calling.
I come crawling at your doors.
There is a matter from my heart.
Gather your sons from afar at Tuwa Kai
Kwee must come to town today.52
The picture painted is that of a guest asking for accommodation. But we learn that the speaker is a child, and therefore his plea is existential; he wants to live and to thrive. The speaker’s clan is representative of the larger world. He pleads with that world for a chance to grow. “I am not Dekuah; let me live”. “I am not Dekuah” appears five times in the seven stanzas of the poem, underscoring the speaker’s resolve to live. This anaphora draws attention to the precariousness of the situation that children, and, indeed everyone else was facing at during the war. People were making peace with the fact that children were not surviving childhood. As child soldiers, some of the children even turned against their parents. It is in this context that the speaker announces that he is not Dekuah.
Dekuah is a spirit child whose goal is to punish its birthing family as it is bound to slip into the birthing mother’s womb again, only to die again after birth. It is to be assumed that Dekuah is a gratuitously malignant spirit that delights in the pain of those who gave it life. Some children, according to this mythology, succeed in being born up to three times. There is an obvious influence from Wole Soyinka’s poem “Abiku” in Jabbeh Wesley’s uses of Dekuah in her poetry. In “Abiku,” the spirit child boasts in the first stanza that there is nothing his birthing family can do to keep him in the land of the living.
In vain your bangles cast Charmed circles at my feet I am Abiku, calling for the first And repeated time53
Abiku children are given marks on their faces or other visible parts of the body so that when they are born again, those marks will reveal them for who they are: deceivers, spirit children. Some of the children, having been discovered and shamed, decide to stay in the land of the living. Some, nevertheless still return to the “spirit world” because of their stronger binding pacts with other children there.54 The Grebo (Jabbeh Wesley’s ethnicity), believe, as do most West African cultures, that such spirit children exist. In these cultures, children are given similar names. Dekuah in Grebo can be broken down as De “come,” Kuah, “to die”: a child who has come to die. Other names associated with the Dekuah (Abiku) phenomenon are Mudi, “Go Back,” Sejlah “We don’t want you,” Kude “The devil’s mother,” et cetera.
If Dekuah signifies unwillingness to live, or reminds us of the Frankenstein syndrome, as we suggested above, it is no surprise that the child in the poem immediately announces that he is not Dekuah; he has not come to die. Emphasizing the singularity of his existence, his will to live, he says, “I’ve never been born before” and then goes on to announce what he is and what he desires. “My name is Nehklon / Let me live.” Of particular relevance is the shift from the negative declaration “I am not” to a positive one, “I am”. In this linguistic switch, the poet signals a deeper moral and existential consequence. In this shift from a reactionary attitude to life to one that is proactive, Jabbeh Wesley brings the challenges of life affirmation to the consciousness of her readers. Through Nehklon, she enables us to imagine people taking charge of their lives, as Levi does in his “If This Is a Man”. It is therefore not only Nehklon who pleads; all Liberians plead for a chance to live, for a fair share in life’s bounty. There is nothing to be happy about in the remembrance of the war’s violence; there is no happy ending for the narrative other than the hope that people might be allowed to live and to thrive. People are not Dekuahs; they have not come to die.
I titled the concluding section of Chapter 5 “When Right Means Life.” The title is in tune with one ofthe central ideas ofthis book, which is that the absence of rights disables women, and often leads to their death. In Petina Gappah’s short story, “At the Sound of the Last Post” the denial of rights leads to the death of the hero’s first wife. In Sefi Atta’s novel, Everything Good Will Come, Arinola experiences the same fate. If rights mean life, the reverse is also the case. The love of life is precisely a call for rights. To put it differently, there can be no love of life without rights. The desire to live is universal. Might this be Jabbeh Wesley’s appeal to universal human rights?
Carol Blessing rightly observes that Jabbeh Wesley’s poetic tone “shifts between critical, bemused, revelatory, celebratory, and mournful, as she discusses both her American and Liberian lives.”55 Her style is generally narrative, predominantly free verse that lives primarily through her deft evocation of strong images. Adhering closely to formal stanzas often arranged in couplets, tercets, and quatrains, but dispensing with strict meters and rhymes, she delves into conversational rhythms that invoke a familial atmosphere. Her narrative is often reminiscent of folklore—as if the narrator were among friends, telling stories around the kitchen table. The moment of epiphany in such contexts comes when mournful tones sneak into the words of the speaker. For example, “Strange Lovers” from the collection Before the Palm Could Bloom, begins:
So it is the moon that sends the Mesurado running to visit the Atlantic with its millions of troops?56
Here Jabbeh Wesley plays with elements that the listeners are very familiar with and which they can easily visualize. The personification of the Mesurado River achieves comic relief even in the midst of tragedy. Throughout the poem, a voice induces a dialogue between the river and its millions of troops— its fish-and, taking the position of the fish, goes on with questions, now directed at some other forces. One can imagine children chuckling at the narrative, and adults grinning, while they are all seated around the family hearth listening. The last three stanzas evince a change in tone, preparing the reader for a shocking realization. The fish, and the voice that has taken their perspective, are tired of being sent on rendezvous. One of these days the voice/fish will be gone
Like a frog that cried and cried for the rain, and before the rains, withers beside the dried banks of the stream.
I’ll be gone, Mesurado, do you hear me?57
Even in her familial tone, and perhaps because of it, Jabbeh Wesley never forgets that the healing and meaning-making function of grief and mourning, as painful as the latter processes are, is not to be avoided. Rather, as DuBose, argues, based on the painful experience of his wife’s miscarriage, as “‘child’ and ‘parent’ disappeared, our bodies and our society dys-appeared, and our connections and hopes re-appeared.”58 Jabbeh Wesley attaches the reappearance of hopes for the healing and reconstruction of her Liberian world to people’s ability and willingness to truly experience the painful process of grief and, perhaps informed by that cathartic experience, to allow compassion and empathy to guide their relationship to others.