TESTIMONY: FOUND POEMS FROM THE SPECIAL COURT FOR SIERRA LEONE
by Shanee Stepakoff
REVIEWS OF MY BOOK
These “found poems” are unquestionably harrowing to read and painful to absorb. Eight survivors of the murderous cruelty and atrocities committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone tell their own stories, and in their own words. Every one of these words is drawn from transcripts of the war crimes tribunals that came with the end of that war. Shanee Stepakoff—a psychologist who has long worked with survivors of torture—brings to these transcript accounts her poet’s sense of lineation, stanzaic structure, pauses, refrains and repetitions. Thus, she creates a ceremonial space in which we as readers might begin to hear and bear witness to the unbearable degree of violence, suffering, and loss that these women and men endured.
Author of Said Not Said (Graywolf Press)
Of the many forms of human suffering, ethical loneliness—the experience of enduring atrocity only to be confronted with the annihilating cruelty and injustice of remaining unheard—sheds a radiant, hurt light on the very nature and power of language itself. In stark, beautifully calibrated lines, Shanee Stepakoff reaches into that silence to serve and bring forth these necessary voices. Here, the plainest words, “I saw” “I heard” ‘I walked” take on an almost shocking and devastating dignity. As the survivors recount their stories, it is as if each syllable, each word, is a bone stripped bare. “He was burning,” “I used to be,” “I was born,” “he was cutting the child.” At once unsparing and informed by a deep tenderness and care, this darkly luminous work implicitly interrogates the nature of authorship and poetic form, and like all seminal works, helps to question, expand, and re-define their boundaries.
When politics invades lives in the most brutal of ways, what can be fashioned from the aftermath? In these found poems Shanee Stepakoff has taken the testimonies of those upon whom the violence was committed and turned them into a work of witness, Nadine Gordimer’s ‘inward testimony’ that it is the task of artists to deliver. Outwardly the poems in this collection stand as monument to remembrance and commemoration, a stay against oblivion for the people of Sierra Leone whose lives were marked by the civil conflict of 1991-2002. They are a significant contribution to the literature of that country and of conflict.
In Testimony: Found Poems from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Shanee Stepakoff finally breaks the veil of silence that surrounds the unspeakable horrors of Sierra Leone’s long civil war. She has recomposed the official accounts to offer us both the intimacy and eternality of survivor stories.
The incredible horrors painfully recited herein…include the mutilation of children, mass rapes, and torture by rival revolutionary groups…. Shanee Stepakoff’s documented testimonies illustrate the continuing crying need for effective international controls and binding laws to deter such atrocities everywhere.
Investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II and the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor (2020)