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Review: Jabbeh Wesley’s When The Wanderers Come Home

When the Wanderers Come Home is a grieving love letter to Liberia, a country that contains her story

By Bidisha SK Mamata

In Patricia Jabbeh Wesley’s powerful When the Wanderers Come Home, the search for a place of arrival, self-recognition and remembrance continues, but doesn’t find a resting place. Wesley was born in Liberia but settled in America; this pained and poignant collection focuses on her return to the former. She traces relatives, interviews women war survivors and figuratively and literally searches through the detritus of violence, poverty and natural decay to uncover the past. In ‘Erecting Stones’ the past is fragmented, “trash”, “debris”, “broken pieces” mixed up with “remnants of bombs […] missile splinters, old pieces of shells”.

In ‘Coming Home’ Wesley describes “dust from the past, / eating away the present” and indeed the whole collection carries a note of constant wariness, a fear of imminent violence, of impermanence and mistrust in which history is always threatening to repeat itself and “Liberia smells again of corpses” (‘Send Me Some Black Clothes’). In the aftermath of violence, the text crawls with images of decay, of consumption by scorpions, locusts and termites, “the eater of all life”. Wesley sees herself not as a noble witness or a returning countrywoman but “an outsider, at the doorpost” (‘So I Stand Here’) who is “standing among caskets” (‘Send Me Some Black Clothes’), “a lone traveller / without a country” (‘In My Dream’).

Wesley’s fifth collection

The Liberia of Wesley’s childhood has been transformed into a place of numb, shell-shocked survivors – “death was more alive than us”, she writes, devastatingly, in ‘The Cities We Lost’. In ‘Becoming Ghost’ she conducts interviews with women who have survived unimaginable abuses and considers “how each one of us carries between our / breasts, stories no one will believe.” Despite the brokenness of what she describes, Wesley’s poetic form is smooth and steady, the neat stanzas and non-rhyming couplets capably containing the most shocking revelations. The horror is belied, however, by the line breaks, which do not occur at the natural end of a thought or image but as a gasp of awful realisation – as when the sun falls “on the backs of children / who may never grow up” (‘I Go Home’).

Wesley pays particular tribute to women’s strength and resilience, from the South African protest singer Miriam Makeba, whose band’s records sounded “as though its players were born playing”, to an ode to Hurricane Sandy, in which she jokes that “A woman by herself is category 7 hurricane”. There are further works written on journeys to and from Colombia, Libya, America and Morocco, but at heart When the Wanderers Come Home is a grieving love letter to Liberia, a country that contains her story just as she tries to contain all its stories, woman and country intertwined like “branches and limbs of the same oak” (‘When Monrovia Rises’).

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