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Becoming Ebony

Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Publication Year: 2003

Recapturing the celebratory voice of Africa in poems that are both contemporary and traditional, Liberian-born Patricia Jabbeh Wesley weaves lyrical storytelling with oral history and images of Africa and America, revealing powerful insights about the relationship between strength and tragedy—and finding reason to celebrate even in the presence of war, difficulties, and death. Rooted in myths that can be traced to the Grebo tradition, Becoming Ebony portrays Liberian-born Wesley’s experiences of village talk and civil war as well as her experiences of the pain of her mother’s death and the difficulties of rearing a family away from home in the United States, and explores the questions of living in the African Diaspora. Turning on the African proverb of “the wandering child” and the metaphor of the ebony tree—which is beautiful in life and death— these poems delve into issues of human suffering and survival, plainly and beautifully chronicling what happens “after the sap is gone.”

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Series: Crab Orchard Series in Poetry


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-x

Poems in this book or excerpts have appeared or are forthcoming in the following literary journals and anthologies...


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My Birth at the Doorpost

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p. 3-3

In the birthing chamber, an old lady stands at the doorpost where Iyeeh and other village women are bending over Mama who is pushing me out into the world. Someone is giving...

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I Used to Own This Town

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pp. 4-5

This place used to be my town . . . even when the river rose from its own bed, taking up residence with us in the rainy season, hiding under our beds and dining tables; in kitchens,...

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Get Out of Here, Boys!

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pp. 6-7

When we were children, we lived in Slip Way, Bishop Brooks or Bassa Community, laid out, the masterpieces of an unskilled artist. We were Turtur and Muriel and Mikey, Comfort and Teeta, Sunday and...

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Requiem for Auntie

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pp. 8-10

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. As the dead in the land of the living made...

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Today Is Already Too Much

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pp. 11-12

The pigs are squealing now. It is feeding time, and here, the younger climb upon the older—the slob of grains and chicken greens, rotten...

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For Marie Antoinette

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pp. 13-14

The day I discovered Marie Antoinette, she was already dead. A woman, still clinging to her body without the rest of her. Her stilled self, like a goddess without her angels. Her executioners...


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In the Beginning

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pp. 17-18

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...

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This Is What I Tell My Daughter

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pp. 19-20

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...

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War Baby

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p. 21-21

Ma Hawa sent for me because Gbayon swallowed his breath with a piece of candy. It stuck to his three-year-old throat and took his breath down with it. Our...

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The Moon Poem

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p. 22-22

In Monrovia, my mother will walk outdoors tonight under this same blue light beneath which her children ran wild. Today, the old moon hunches against the dark sky, having gathered wood for the sun’s bonfire...

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They Want to Rise Up

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p. 23-23

In the unknown hours, when daylight is coming in, and the dark gathers for departure, when the winds stir...

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Elegy to West Point Fishermen

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p. 24-24

Your corrugated zinc shacks leaned into one another, like a mask of crocodile scales, along the fevered Atlantic, where waves wash away white sand, tirelessly rising, falling...


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Coming Home to Iyeeh

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p. 27-27

I’m coming home so Iyeeh will die. So many years away, and now, suitcases loaded with rolls of black cotton fabric, matching earrings and hats...

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A Dirge for Charles Taylor

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p. 28-28

Charles Taylor sits like a wasted child who has smashed the sacred bowl. Firestarter of the hushed town...

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Around the Mountains

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pp. 29-31

Sandy winds her car around little mountains from Buffalo to Olean while we talk of husbands, children, and the years. We’re in a maze, these Alleghenies humping, chasing one another up...

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Elegy for Dessie

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pp. 32-33

My telephone rang in the news at half past ten. Your news arriving through a cordless phone. The day outside my window came in, uninvited. Snowflakes sparkling, falling...

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p. 34-34

From the plane I see skyscrapers like needles. Train tracks winding up huge towns like thread knotted in between so the needle stays in place...

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When I Meet Moses

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pp. 35-36

Forty years, and already, the body is ready to go. Knuckles ache, fingers fail you, and your eyes see things...

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For Robert Frost

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p. 37-37

They say you used to hear voices. Your mother heard voices. Your sister heard voices. So they locked...

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The Corrupt Shall Rise Incorruptible

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pp. 38-40

It’s going to be something to see, right after I’m dead and gone. Uncontrolled laughing down the hall where my body lies in state, and everyone turns to...

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We’ve Done It All

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p. 41-41

In my family, all the wars have been fought, battles, won. All the losers have long settled their losses in cattle or goats and sheep, in women or farmlands...

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The World in Long Lines

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p. 42-42

We are comforted by the breeze from the Atlantic carrying salty, moist waves upon its shoulders. Strong winds from the shores of Harper bring us a day’s consolation. Especially when the sun in March...

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All the Soft Things of Earth

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p. 43-43

All the soft things of earth sighed when my mother died. All the quiet noises of this world stopped, at once. Not even the drying, wet leaves, after fall had tossed them so. Not even the...

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Becoming Ebony

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pp. 44-46

“Did I come all the way here to hide from the sun?” Mama would sigh. I can still see Mama standing at the window, watching dark clouds, cold winds, yellow leaves—November. Leaves from my neighbor’s yard ...


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For My Husband

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pp. 49-50

We lived through rationed minutes at Soul Clinic Mission displaced center, on rationed grains and fear, and then night visited its shadows despite the odorous air from the Killing Rubber Bush. One day I asked if you were sure this was...

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Wandering Child

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pp. 51-53

It is so long ago now—twenty years? Maybe, thirty. There is beer, hot-pepper-soup and laughter. Pay day, my father is making pay-day talk. In the kitchen, my father’s wife, Ma Nmano, is cooking goat meat soup with...

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Small Desires

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pp. 54-55

We had become small desires—a few cups of rice to feed a family of ten; no salt or sugar, no oil or beans, just a few pounds of raw, white rice to feed those who might...

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When I Rise to Look the Sunshine in Its Bare Eye

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pp. 56-57

Today settles at dawn, taking over my collar bones, moving down my upper back, my spine, back and forth, the pain travels. Molecules of...

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A Poem for My Father

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pp. 58-59

Pa wants another degree from me, a PhD, for sure. Me, his oldest girl child who was supposed to be a man. As if God won’t let Pa into Heaven without a family PhD. Won’t listen to Pa’s old arguments about too many children plus too many hungry relatives to feed. Too many Mats to put down, and all those relatives from Kaluway arriving, red with dust from two days’ ...

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In This Town

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pp. 60-61

In this town the Presbyterian church spreads its wings like a jumbo jet. Sprawled upon the street corner, larger than the town. Houses sporadically...

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My Neighbors’ Dogs

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pp. 62-63

All my neighbors have dogs, uncountable breeds of dogs, little leashes around their dog necks. My neighbors train their dogs to bark at dawn like the rooster, to rouse the whole neighborhood out of its sleep. In the evening when I come home from work, these yelping, howling, overweight dogs welcome my car from the st...

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A Letter to My Brother Coming to America

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p. 64-64

We just extended our daylight hours—so we can shop the malls, pay our bills, shovel out snow, take the garbage...

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My New Insurance Plan

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p. 65-65

My insurance company called me today—a great new plan that’s just right for me—thousands of dollars for me when I’m already dead and gone, in the grave, while I lie still, clasped in soil and water, beneath stones, and cold; my husband or my children...

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These Are the Reasons the Living Live

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p. 66-66

Here come my children again, pushing chairs out, in my way. They giggle, fall, and scream. The family room leads into Ade’s room all littered with broken toys, old crayons, broken only in the middle. Half...

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M-T, Turning Thirteen

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pp. 67-68

My son, M-T, comes home from school, attached to two black wires, dangling, his arms also dangling along those long legs. M-T dances his...

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Winter Street

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p. 69-69

Outside, the street stands still. Is it the silence of the cold or is it us? When winter comes we turn willing prisoners behind closed doors...

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A Snowwoman in Her Dying Hour

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pp. 70-71

You will find her leaning sideways on my lawn— a belt around her waist, her soft knit hat, and that red Christmas scarf she...

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I Now Wander

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p. 72-72

I raised ducks, pigs, dogs, barking watchdogs. Wild chickens loose, dancing, flapping old wings. Red and white American roosters...

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I Am Acquainted with Waiting

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pp. 73-74

We waited to see if after all that smoke and shooting, there was still us. Twelve years now, all the anger subsiding, and again building up among my countrymen who...


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pp. 75-79

Other Books in the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry

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p. 80-80

Back Cover

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p. 81-81

E-ISBN-13: 9780809388868
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809325177

Page Count: 96
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Crab Orchard Series in Poetry

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