These poems were written in response to the 10,000 pages of testimony against the Catholic Church gathered by the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which I first read on the Center for Constitutional Rights website. KF
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 scream like Beelzebub. 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 Witness has recurring dreams of tidal waves. Waking to a 30-footer crashing through the bedroom window. The Witness likes the sound of the player piano in the living room; for hours it scrolls through jittery jazz sets. Sometimes The Witness jumps on the bed. For short bursts, he forgets about the approaching storm. The Witness loves the creaking stairs and the sound of family members flipping in the kitchen. The Witness has survived another night. If he had a super power, he would take on the witch doctor who roams the streets scattering magic pellets. The Witness loves the phrase “to each his own.” In class, The Witness sings “Joy to the World” and Johnny conducts with his hands although there are no other performers in this pit. Eighth grade brings sorrow, the lone robin on the tree branch outside the classroom window in February. Miss Fleming in her flat black shoes. Norman Ringling in his wheelchair, his ever-present nasal drip, his silly jokes, the way he grabs hold of The Witness’s wrist to share his latest nonsense rhyme. The Witness still loves the feel of marble, he loves the incense, 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! in Four Square, the way the woods glowed with lime green leaves in the early morning light and the house was sometimes suffused with the smell of strawberry cake, happy days, so short-lived.
I slipped in between the folds of the curtain and sat in the dark hot box examining my conscience and waiting for the screen to slide open and the keeper of the keys to materialize. When he did, his was not the face of a stocking-faced burglar, or a postman, or the creeper who used to circle my block in his white van, but it was not the face of God either. God would not have fingered a clump of pellets, while peppering me with allegations. He would not have said, “Are you sure that’s all you’ve done?” When I was little, I saw a supposed saint. She was the marquee attraction in the basement of a famous church. In her glass coffin, she lay with her hands pointing toward Heaven, rosary beads coiled around her waxy fingertips. It was chilly in that temperature-controlled room. According to the sign, she’d been lying unmolested for hundreds of years. Good for her. One touch and I turned right to dust.
The Witness is just like you and me. Most days he doesn’t feel like saying anything antagonistic. Most days he’s happy with toast and tea, a little bit of television, a stroll, but every now and then The Witness is struck down mid-jaunt. Every now and then, The Witness tumbles down the stairs. The water in the shower comes out scalding hot. The Witness’s hair falls out in clumps. The Witness can’t remember his name, he can’t even get out of bed. Shake it off? There is nothing he would like more. If you run into The Witness at a dinner party, he will not bring it up. He’ll listen to your suburban saga politely. He’s been known to suck down a shot of vodka, a snort or two. In other words, he could be you. If you had witnessed it. If you were on your merry way one day when you were very small and everyone around you was very very tall. The Witness can not talk about this like a normal person, which is why they sometimes lock him up, they keep him under observation. Like a faucet that’s lost a clot, he can’t seem to make the images stop.
A shiver of sharks a boy raped by four priests like bumping snapping a locker room towel into the prey passing the mashed potatoes to determine Are you done yet? whether it’s edible rotting and sometimes they fruit on the counter take a bite just to see left out and forgotten if it’s tasty.
In Church, mental rigor mortis. The day long and wintery. Who is hiding underneath those billowing robes? The sermon lasts a century. Nails in my palms. A boy in a serge jacket fashions a paper airplane. The tree’s skeletal digits tap the stained glass. God is not a gold chalice or a small glass carafe you upend.
In all the churches of the saints women shall keep silent, subordinate. It is shameful for a woman to speak in church or outside church and if a man wears a gown of vibrant colors and holds a golden chalice aloft and God originates within him, then, by all means, hand your child over to that man, don’t fret, don’t picture him donning his white robe, cinching his penitent’s belt. If your child is lighting the candle of the Lord and that man puts the candle out, then the candle is out. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and the priest loved me while my mother covered her head, fiddled with her flower, tossed it like a bouquet, to be cleansed by the word, so that I might be presented without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. We are members of one body, defiled, demoralized, shame-filled. The mystery is a profound one, how you let it go on this long.
Let’s talk church climate, let’s talk seminary formation, power relations. The long-term effects of prolonged exposure. Sin and guilt. Let’s talk mortal sin. The gravity of consequences, The perceived transgressions, the sacristy and its secrets, crimes and canon law, procedures of removal, refusal to report, civil dissonance, aiding and/or abetting. The fear of scandal, the culture of secrecy, a parent’s downturned eyes.
The Witness went back there. Same two steps up to the altar, same candles, same long wicks, the space behind the altar, the many grooves in the oak seats, the way the light filtered in blue, the rooms in the back where everyone lined up. The robes felt like sheets sliding over the body, the rope had a ball on the end, the people had their eyes closed singing about loss and redemption, services interminable, the only place to find God was in the blank stares, the way the head sometimes separates from the body, how if you look carefully you will find that people are just floating heads transported by a trunk and appendages that soil easily. But the head can leave the body; it’s been done: people with headphones, people staring into space, people with their heads down praying, chanting, missing everything— where do they go? Where did The Witness go?
My Dear Sisters: If any man longs to see you, ask him what good may come of it, since I see many evils in it and no profit. If he is importunate, trust him the less. If anyone is so mad as to put his hand out towards the window curtain, shut your curtain right up. Likewise, as soon as anyone gets on to wicked talk that has to do with foul love, fasten the latch straight away, and do not answer him at all.
Nothing happened, the fish suffer too, the hook in the gill, the yellow heart, how did this happen? The mind is not free, it’s catapulting, the world is not listening, it’s cold out. I have been alone in this reliquary forever. Let me out.
Kelly Fordon is the author of two poetry chapbooks, On The Street Where We Live, which won the 2011 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest, and Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, which was published by Kattywompus Press in May 2013. Her short story collection, Garden for the Blind, was published by Wayne State University Press in April 2015. Her website can be found at www.kellyfordon.com.
These poems are part of a larger collection that will be published by Kattywompus Press in 2016. “The Victim’s Testimony” appeared in The New Poet, 2013, and “Confessional” was a finalist in the Midwest Writing Center National Poetry Contest and was published in Off Channel, 2011.