Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet's Journal of Healing by Norbert Krapf,
by Stefanie Lipsey, Book/Mark Quarterly Review (Winter, 2015).
After decades of writing award-winning poems that cover a broad territory of personal, political, and metaphysical landscapes, the poet, Norbert Krapf, writes about the childhood abuse that he suffered at the hands of a priest.
With a sensibility toward justice, along with the lyrical and musical qualities we expect from this poet, Catholic Boy Blues is a true journey of healing. Some poems echo the refrains found in church choirs while other poems sing the blues through the manifestation of a character called “Mr. Blues.”
We first meet Mr. Blues late in section one after a structurally controlled but emotionally frenetic grasping at salvation. The poems seek understanding and healing from biblical figures and feminine mystics including Hildegard of Bingen, and Mechthild of Magdeburg before moving us through a cycle of seven poems called “Catholic Boy Blues.” Repetition creates a haunting, nursery rhyme quality found in phrases like, “Tell me, priest,/tell me true,/does it make you blue?/Where is Jesus/when you do/what you do?” It reminds us of the destruction of child-like innocence.
Questions are an important and appropriate literary vehicle throughout the entire book. They help to draw the reader into a very intimate space. We, along with the poet, interrogate God, the church, and even the priest himself. The poem, “Tell me, Pastor,” in section III recalls the earlier refrain, “Tell me, priest” in a way that mimics the unending cycle that comes from abuse. Other poems press for understanding: “Why, Priest, Why?” and “Did You Ever Think?” Indeed, “WHY?”
The title poem of section III, “Tell Me, Pastor,” is a like a religious call and response service. This time the questions posed to the priest are mammoth, “How have you changed my life?” But there are no answers. There are only more questions, “What could you have done/ to make my little sis wonder/ why altar boys have to sleep over/ before they serve the early mass?”
Readers are artfully led into disbelief and wonderment throughout each section of the book: What could the sister have known? What could the mother have thought? How would the father deal, eventually, with the loss of trust from the priest he befriended? Did he ever recover from what his son was made to endure? The abuse is alluded to in some places, but in others, the abuse is blatant and graphic. We come to know and feel sorry for the boy in these poems and also share the anger that arises in adulthood.
Readers will marvel at the empathy and fortitude it must have taken for the poet to write from the perspective of the priest in the final section of the book. This is the resurrection. This is the true test of faith. How can one feel compassion for a man who was so sick and dangerous? Through these poems, we are forced to not look away and demonize the priest. Krapf helps us to realize that this priest was a victim too. A poem like “Who Needs Dante?” is one such poem. It is written in the voice of the priest, “…and they took down my picture/from the back of the church/and took off my name from the Knights of Columbus chapter…. Who needs a Dante/to create a vision of Hell/when I made Hell/and left it behind?”
This last section is a beautiful conclusion to the masterful four movement symphony that Krapf has created. Mr. Blues, the alter-ego who has comforted the young boy and older man, has been there all along. In one of the last poems, “Mr. Blues on Home Burial,” he condemns the priest and praises the boy, “You stared into the eye of the beast. /You went back and fought that beast./ You would not give into that priest.” Perhaps it is now time to let go of the blues. This is the powerful message that the book wants us to hear, good triumphs over evil.
Catholic Boy Blues is intense and heartbreaking but an important and fearless collection of poems. This work has the potential to change, inspire, and awaken anyone who reads Krapf’s masterful latest collection of poems.
Reviewed by Stefanie M. Lipsey
Thanks to editor Mindy Kronenberg for permission to reprint.
For more info on Norbert Krapf's work, click here.