By Kelly Fordon
Reviewed by Terry Blackhawk
In Washington, D.C., on the corner of Mass. Ave and 34th Street, a man stands with a sign. The sign says "Priests Molest Boys" and the man, John Wojnowski, has been holding this sign every day for fourteen years. As we learn from Kelly Fordon's powerful chapbook, The Witness, published earlier this year by Kattywompus Press, "One day John Wojnowski / had a heart attack. // Two weeks later / he was back." I want to go to D.C. and stand beside John Wojnowski, and I want to celebrate the work of this poet who descended into the archive of S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), all 10,000 pages of it, to create, one might say to channel, these unforgettable, harrowing poems.
An altar girl who grew up devout and trusting in her Catholic faith, Fordon found that, once the pedophilia scandals touched people close to her, she could not stop writing poems about them. Her Witness observes and tries to come to terms with the atrocities against children perpetrated by clergy members. The voice is that of someone who has been violated, who is psychically stuck and cannot escape the devastation he has "witnessed."
The poems are beautiful in their terseness and in their relentless transmission of dreadful truths that The Witness, a composite persona, recounts in calm, matter-of-fact lines. The dispassionate way Fordon holds horror at arm's length puts me in mind of the late Herb Scott who liked to stress the importance of language that does not overreact, sharing with particular relish an account of medieval torture that described the way each of a victim's bones is broken, one at a time, as the way "a cook cracks eggs." Fordon clearly hews to this path.
In his first appearance, The Witness "has recurring dreams of tidal waves." He still loves the sounds and aromas of his home, the songs he sings in school, the ritual at the altar. He "jumps on the bed. For short / bursts he forgets about the approaching / storm," but the storm will follow him all his life.
The Witness still loves . . . the God that
materializes genie-like when the priest pours
first the water and then the wine into his goblet.
The Witness's job is to replace the empty
cruets. Years later his job is to squeeze his eyes
shut until he can hear the dodge ball thudding
against Eleanor, or Elizabeth screaming out!
"The Witness IV" finds the Witness "halfway through the journey / of his life," beginning "to contemplate / the various ways one might leave / this blank space, this curdled / world." He remembers how "you cinched your robe / with a cord, you cinched it tight, / the priest showed you how to do it / he put his hands around your waist," and he finds himself dwelling on:
the body of Christ.
The body, the body, the body.
The many uses and
degradations of the body.
Here we go again. The Witness
must say the body 313 times,
he must turn the lights on
and off 313 times, he must
say his name, his shame.
In "The Witness V," obsessiveness gives way to profound dislocation: " . . . the only place to find God / was in the blank stares / the way the head / sometimes separates / from the body." For "The Witness VII," it may be "that nothing happened," only the "remembering / not remembering" of many other "things that happened" as a life devolves into "pain pills, heroin, hiding / under the bed, the voices, anxiety attacks, / broken windows, broken noses / the panic, the pain, the emergency exit."
The collection juxtaposes the Witness' poems with poems from other perspectives. Fordon takes on the complicity and subjugation of wives who are subject to husbands who, subjects in turn, turn their children over to the church ("Reckoning: St. Paul"). "From the Ancrene Wisse" advises "Dear Sisters" to keep their mouths shut and abjure "wicked talk / that has to do with foul love."
Anyone who has seen the film Spotlight will find in this slender volume a powerful poetic companion. With plainspoken language, much of it gathered from direct utterances by S.N.A.P. survivors, and with titles such as "Reckoning," "Evil," "Shame," "Confessional," and "Hush," The Witness casts new light into the darkness that covered up the priests' behavior. Little detail—beyond, say, "the doorknob . . . he was looking at when . . . "—is required to evoke the assaults that abruptly ended so many childhoods and ruined so many lives.
Working with such psychologically devastating material as the S.N.A.P. testimony leaves little room for the oblique, often wry poetry that characterized Fordon's earlier chapbooks, On the Street Where We Live and Tell Me When It Starts to Hurt. Fordon's hope is that The Witness will add to the conversation about pedophilia and prompt higher-ups in the Catholic Church to take to heart the testimony of the victims and put an end to cover-ups and abuse. Poems like "The Testimony of the Victim" should surely advance this cause.
I'm stuck in this file cabinet.
Who wants to finger me?
My words are onion paper thin.
Easily crumpled, easily tossed.
In French class I say,
S'il vous plaît ne faites pas ça.
Shower me with holy water
and I shriek like Asmodeus.
The first robe is always white,
but the outer one changes
like his performance. It was purple
that day to remind us of our sins.
As if I could forget.
As if God could. The light
above my box is always red,
which means stop, a word
I use more than any other.
The more quiet these poems become, the more resounding the devastation. Fordon's discretion and compassion stand out as she navigates these horrible shoals and, through exquisite understatement, highlights and helps us understand the wreckage.