February 2002

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley


Patricia Jabbeh Wesley's work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Orleans Review, and others. Her book, Before The Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press, 1998), retells her experiences in the Liberian civil war. She has poems forthcoming in New Sister Voices (SIU press). She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her family.
A special introduction by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley   


In the Beginning   

In the beginning, there were women, and all things,
creeping and non-creeping, were good.

That was before time could tell daylight from night.
When men could speak women's tongues; before

the sea turned blue and took up rolling, foaming, like
a big glass of fresh palm wine. Before oceans learned

to rise and fall, before rivers were first named rivers.
Before they named the Cavalla River, Cavalla, after

the fish or the fish after the town, or the town after
the river. When Cape Palmas, where I come from,

became Cape Palmas; before there was even a cape
or palm trees. Before Cape Palmas began to give birth

to palm trees that sprouted with fat bottoms and began
to rise, and the coconut learned to be sister to the nut

palm and the nut palm to the bamboo palm, the bamboo
palm to the thatched; or when their grandfather made

them blood relations, or straw relations or bamboo
relations, or cabbage relations or long, thin leaves

relations, or whatever it is that makes them seem
identical twins. But bamboo knows how to prick my

finger when I touch it with an angry heart; the palm tree
will prick lightly, while the coconut stands there, tall.

Coconut breasts hanging from its chest, or head,
or whatever. The way a bamboo grove used to prick

our toes when Mudi and I wandered under its swampy
territory. That was before the time when women took

upon themselves to birth babies, even though men
knew how to, or before men went around boasting

of having this many children and this many sons upon
their mere fingers. Iyeeh says men really birthed babies

then, and women boasted of being the fathers of babies
then, and the children ran for their fathers like they do

today for their mothers when a father calls them
for a whip with a cane. That was long before the car

road bulldozed the giant walnut, the oak, chopping up
the towns and the forests into roads, and rubber trees

sprang up where the forests were, and the coffee
became a tree, becoming first cousin to the cocoa,

and the palm nuts went to the city to be sold for coins.
Suddenly, we girls grew wings like pepper birds, no,

no, like eagles, or like jet planes, and could fly or hop
on a truck to the city where street lights cannot tell

the villager from the city dweller; where a man cannot
tell his wife from his lover; his inside children from his

outside children; where all have lost their hearts to the bars
and the dangling lights, and people fight on street corners;

and after all that, I and all the girls of the world learned
to run wild too, like wild flowers, no, no, wild, like men.

All the women of the world, becoming just men.



This is What I Tell My Daughter   

If my father hadn't scared me, I wouldn't be here.
I'd be somewhere down Jallah Town or Slip Way,
where the Mesurado dumps its junk by dark swamps.
I'd be carrying buckets full of dirt to turn
Monrovia's swamps into dry land. Or I'd be
somebody's wife, trying to be somebody's wife.
This is how I scare my daughter.

You wouldn't be here. You'd be somewhere
where babies wait in long lines to be born;
little babies with sore feet, waiting
in the unborn world, where food can't grow.
I would have had ten children before you were born.
You, there, standing in line, waiting to be born,
while I'd be in some overcrowded town,
some unknown city or village, with skinny
legged children, mucus noses, bare feet,

crying for food. I'd be there, one husband
each month, one room each month.
On Capital Bye Pass, where I grew up,
all the boys knew how to get a girl pregnant.
All sorts of men and boys, all sorts of people
lurking at windows, in doorways.
Plenty of men from Nigeria, from Sudan,
from far away villages in Liberia, from Mars.
This is what I tell my daughter.

The University, bringing the whole globe
with hurried feet on our street,
emptying its men in one room boarding houses
in our backyard. My father, a barbed-wire fence,
his needle-poking eyes, scaring boys away.
The boys called him "CIA chief."
The girls on Capital Bye Pass—with their perky,
brown cheeks, their smooth pretty skin,
their sophisticated steps.
My father called them gronna-girls,
bringing home sad trophies in teen arms.



Patricia Jabbeh Wesley: Poetry
Copyright 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 19The Cortland Review