Sounds of Resistance: A Review of Norbert Krapf’s Catholic Boy Blues
(Norbert Krapf, Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet’s Journal of Healing. Introduction by Matthew Fox. Nashville, TN: Greystone Publishing, 2014. 222 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-941365-00-7)
The subject reveals ugly betrayal – an abused altar boy. The pain has lingered in the voice of the victim for decades. For those who believe poetry has the power to heal, this book serves as a crucible. Mr. Krapf, the Indiana Poet Laureate from 2008 -2010, has had a highly successful career in poetry and in higher education, but no work of his will have greater effect than Catholic Boy Blues. The words on these pages are “sounds of resistance” (p.33,lines 22-23), his courageous attempt to face the past, to erase its power, even as he has resisted its grip for too much of his life.If you are religious, you should read this book. If you are not, nonetheless, you will benefit from reading it, for the terror and for the frankly simple, beautiful response to the gross ruination of innocence.
Mr. Krapf offers a four-part structure: 1) “Counting the Collection” which graphically focuses on abuse in childhood 2) “The Boy and The Man He Became” 3) “Tell Me, Pastor” and 4) “The Priest on Sorry”. Krapf tells us in his “Preface” that the chronology of the poems is often interrupted due to the upheaval of memory. So the structure moves in a discernible pattern, but the interruption of memory occurs and sometimes violates the order of poems. I think these intrusions are especially poignant, given the uneven nature of attempts at healing. There is not a smooth path to wholeness, and Krapf’s distribution of his poems acknowledges this honest confusion and anger while attempting to move to closure, and even forgiveness. The hints toward forgiveness are amazing. In a beautiful poem “The Boy in the Snowy Woods” the poet concludes, “To save the soul of the boy / going deep into snowy woods / you must create a new prayer / that rises to God like a hymn” (191, lines 17-20). The last poem of the collection begins with this dream: “I dreamed I would meet a priest / who would not do me wrong / as one did when I was a boy” (215, lines 1-3). Until that dream becomes a reality, we can be grateful for the courage of the poet whose words offer “sounds of resistance” – the artistic collaboration of guilt and grace.
But how can poetry rectify such a grievous wrong? At the same time, how can poetry remain silent, given the situation? It cannot. Poetry sings out the pain. If healing occurs, fine. If ultimately, it is powerless to heal, then we live with the results, but the first law of poetry is to sing, to unveil, to make the dark places light. Like God, in this manifesto poetry reveals everything, and we readers are left to gather up our emotions in response and do what we will with them. But the poetry confronts us; it won’t let us forget what we have seen and heard. The song, as blue as it is, never loses its power. The language of this book is disarmingly simple, yet the poems work. One example: “you know your friend / is sitting on the priest’s / lap and squirming, / you hear the sound / of the office chair / on rollers squeak, / you recognize the sounds/ of resistance, you know whose/ hands have gone where” (33, 16 -24). Understandably, due to the vile subject, it is not easy to think of the craft of poetry in an aesthetic or even academic sense. Here, the test of the poet and his craft demands that the words chosen to reveal the vicious memories do not elevate, do not get in the way of the unveiling, do not disrupt by creating false realities or unnecessary excursions. In this book the words are simple tools to build a confession. The language functions as an obedient work animal pulling writer and reader through the unpleasant but necessary fields of shame – the twin burden of exposing hypocrisy while attempting to heal.
Three poems (pages 58 -61) exemplify how the poet wants to be whole. His titles: “To Hildegard of Bingen,” “To Mechthild of Magdeburg” and “To Isaiah” suggest his desire to be faithful, to praise the good and the God of his childhood. The conundrum, of course, is that these agents of grace may easily be confused with vile manifestations. Indeed, the very sources of creativity in the once young poet are linked with the violation. Krapf writes: “Dear sweet sister in song / and poem and hymn, … help me find light / after the heavy darkness” (58, lines 15-20). Like Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” one stubborn question persists: Is everything false? Is nothing true, nothing believable? How to sort the good from the bad – this confusion is apparent in the poet’s unveiling. It is this intertwining that makes Krapf’s poetry compelling to any reader.
One way the poet has found consolation is through blues music. In fact, one might conclude that given the failure of the Church, it becomes necessary to find other intermediaries for the soul. In Krapf’s case, his brothers and sisters include Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and a host of other musicians well acquainted with enduring pain (64). Much of the poet’s response is written in blues rhyme and repetition. The ugly memories rise in hard questions; the coping is linked with the blues music. These musical interludes serve to break the tension as well as accept the wounded as a fellow sufferer who will one day be compensated. For the survivor of this abuse, who also happens to be a very public poet, the tension involved with survival is not only spiritual, nor is it mere abstraction. The confusion gropes and grips with profound psychological and emotional consequences, hanging on every thought, preying on every memory.
Reviewed by Ken Hada