These are poems about a priest abusing a boy, a number of boys.
Norbert Krapf, recently the poet laureate of Indiana, held it inside for half a century, before a spiritual advisor suggested he deal with it. He then did what an artist does. He created something else, something different.
Think of it as a stage. (This is my conceit, not the author’s.) On the stage is a boy, still reeling from what happened so long ago, and an older man, who has been living a productive life, despite what happened. With his back to the audience, mute and distant for a long and heavy time, is the priest himself.
And then there is Mr. Blues.
"Okay, you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"I admit you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"My mama used to say, 'Son, let go of that bitter sass.!'"
-- Mr. Blues Sings Yes
Mr. Blues is the friend we all want to ride shotgun on the journey of our lives. He is the third part of the Freudian trinity, who sees clearly, speaks the truth, does not let things rest. (Krapf told me he did not create Mr. Blues but rather Mr. Blues just began speaking one day.)
Mr. Blues prods the boy and the man to reconcile, to look again at what went down in rural southern Indiana, when the home-town priest asked altar boys to stay over at the rectory on the night before Sunday Mass, and also took them hunting, was a pillar of the community, and over the years he violated some but not others. Many people knew, but not everybody. The boy and the man are still working that out, five decades later. Why couldn’t they tell anybody? (One boy told his father, who beat him up, but not the priest.)
Krapf used to teach at C.W. Post College on Long Island. I first heard about him in 2003, from three Navajo women from the Southwest who had been recruited to play volleyball, and who raved about Krapf for initiating them into poetry as part of the fine education they were receiving at Post.
Krapf moved home to Indianapolis after that. We still have never met, although I wrote a column about him and the frontier between Bears fans and Colts fans in northern Indiana, before Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Krapf sings blues and jazz around Indiana, and loves to reminisce about the hills and farms of southern Indiana, just north of the Ohio River, a region I learned to love in my days in Louisville.
Now Krapf has written poems about a different corner of his childhood. The man wonders what he could have done to heal some of the pain of the boy, and Mr. Blues hectors them to meet in the middle, to get it out. The reality is as current as Pope Francis meeting with six victims of priest abuse in early July. By now, we all know what happened, in so many places.
Late in the book, there is a rustling on the hypothetical stage. It takes a long time for the priest to speak, but ultimately he does, beginning with a terse warning to the boy. Let us say he is not contrite.
(Krapf notes in the preface that his therapist urged him to include the priest in these poems. Good instinct. It works in the context, and I suspect it worked for Krapf, also.)
I am not qualified to critique poetry, Krapf’s use of three-line stanzas, blues cadence, repetition with slight variation, slang, familiarity, child-like observations of the living past. I only know that I read Catholic Boy Blues in two huge chunks, wondering how it would turn out.
I was reminded of the aside that Nina Simone hurls at the audience in her epic song, “Mississippi Goddam:” “This is a show tune/ But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.” Never was, to my knowledge. But the aside lives.
Most of us think we have read and heard everything we need to know about priest abuse, but up to now we had not heard Norbert Krapf take it on.
* * *
Catholic Boy Blues. By Norbert Krapf. Introduction by Matthew Fox. 2014. Greystone Publishing LLC. Nashville, Tennessee. www.greystonepublishing.com.
On July 15, it was announced that Krapf has been selected as the regional winner of the 2014 Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. He and a colleague plan to hold workshops about writing about difficult relationships.
For more information: http://www.krapfpoetry.com/
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)