Catholic Boy Blues. A Poet’s Journal of Healing.
By Norbert Krapf. Introduction by Matthew Fox. Chicago: ACTA Publications/In Extenso imprint, 2015. 130 poems. xxvii +224 pages. ISBN: 978-087946-988-7. $14.95
A review by Gert Niers, Yearbook of German-American Studies, Vol. 50 (2015), 226-228.
Norbert Krapf’s latest poetry collection is quite an unusual publication, not only within his own œuvre, but also in regard to the subject in general. The book was years in the making – 50 years of introspection, of doubts, of hopes, of pain, of confusion, and – sometimes also – suppression of memory. In addition to its subtitle as a Journal of Healing, I would also classify this publication as a book of protest, a protest not only against child-abuse per se (that goes without saying), but also against a culture and society that make such horrendous crimes possible. The events of this autobiographical retrospection took place during the 1950s in the small, mainly Catholic German-American community of Jasper, Indiana.
As a didactic and dramaturgical tool, the author presents his case through four different speakers or voices: the grown-up man; the boy as a victim; a certain Mr. Blues who knows what suffering is and who expresses his advice in a melancholic blues tone; and the priest as the perpetrator who cannot be convinced easily of his wrongdoing. The book is divided into four parts, but the various voices are not confined to one specific part, they rather wander around. Finally, in the fourth part, the priest shows something like a conscience, although he still looks for excuses. A theatrical trick is successfully practiced by the author at public readings of his collection: he puts on a different hat for each of the four voices. In closing his poetry collection, the author – poet laureate of Indiana 2008-2010 – dedicates an epilog to a priest who is obviously the opposite of Krapf’s childhood priest. The good priest is also identified by his name: Father Michael O’Mara.
The author begins his volume with a scenario of abuse, i.e. he comes right to the point. The style of these texts follows contemporary narrative poetry and is often organized according to dramatic effect. As far as a literary theory or philosophical concept of writing is concerned, Krapf’s poems move between symbolism and realism: the reader does not need a veristic account of the events. The author is not looking for revenge, but more for a justified, long overdue clearing of the facts. The poems reflect the painful contradiction between the practical side of religion and the claim of high moral and spiritual values. After the betrayal and abuse of his childhood, the author still remained a member of the Catholic Church. “If My Poor Parents” (40-41) reflects upon the close relationship between Church and congregation – which makes the child abuse even more despicable. Sometimes the author imitates or recreates the speech of the young boy, thereby giving the text more authenticity. The writing of the poetry collection might as well be considered an exorcism of the Satanic priest: “I must […] exorcise” (45). Two German mystics, Hildegard of Bingen (56) and Mechthild of Magedburg (57), are called upon to help the abused boy understand the contradiction between the high duty of God’s official servant and the servant’s abominable fall from grace. Relief from suffering comes through the blues which are experienced as “my old buddy” in the poem called “Catholic Boy Blues II” (60). In this poem, the blues is a song of healing and liberation, and Mr. Blues is an allegory of healing and liberation.
I find the following poems particularly striking. They are the highlights of this collection: “I Saw My Father” (62-63) is dedicated to the author’s real father who suffered from bouts of depression which at that time (during the 1950s) was treated with painful electric shocks. The poem “Numbers in the Wind” (105) explains the impossibility of giving the exact count of the priest’s victims. The title reminds me of the refrain of Bob Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The relatively long poem “The Dirty Little Secret” (107-109, eight strophes) is basically an exercise in rhetoric. The speaking voice takes the role of the enemy, of a critic who is opposed to reopening the case of a dirty old man who is long gone. “What the Boy in the Pastor’s Photo Says” (118-120): An in-depth description of the photo on the book cover. The photo was taken by the priest who abused the author many years ago. “Double Confession?” (148-150) contains in the third strophe a reference to the ethnic background of the perpetrator: “You came from the same culture, / same German Catholic background.” (148). To overcome the pain of the abuse in early life, the author (the poetic voice) resorts to heavy drinking and moves away from home.
The author asks the priest to give a confession of his unholy deeds. Of course the confession of guilt never comes. “I Ain’t a Kid No More” (158): The poetic voice, which can be assumed to be identical with the voice of the author, refuses to remain silent as far as the crimes of the priest are concerned. The predator is urged to speak up and to confess his crimes. When the poem is published, the priest is long dead. Therefore, the poem can only reflect a previous state of mind in which the victim found himself. “Who Needs Dante?” (176-177): A reference to Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” the first part of his Divine Comedy (14th century). The priest speaks again for himself, pleading for leniency. “Photo Postscript from the Priest” (178-179): the afore-mentioned book cover photo showing the author as a child. It was taken by the infamous priest himself. The author lets his abuser speak. The result is the priest’s first admittance of guilt: “… I am haunted / by that photo I took” (178). “Alternative Our Father” (184-185): The essential Christian prayer calling upon God’s help in various situations of life also asks God to make the priest aware of the seriousness of his crimes so that his victims would be able to heal. That means: only if the priest admits his responsibility a healing of the victims can begin. “The Boy Shoves Back” (197-198): The boy refuses the service and support of the priest (in retrospect). It becomes clear that the priest was also a friend of the parents and sponsored various community activities. “Pedophile Priest Confession” (202-203): The priest reviews his sexual preference. No admission of guilt, but no claim of innocence either.
The author does not identify his abuser by name. This means that the negative character is not any longer bound to a real person, but to the idea of a child-abuser. The predator loses his identity as an individual and becomes an example for all others – past, present, and future criminals of this genre. Of course this procedure also spares the relatives of the real person additional embarrassment. However, there was a time when such consideration did not appear necessary. In his prose memoir The Ripest Moments. A Southern Indiana Childhood (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2008) Norbert Krapf mentioned various chores he did for the priest, like the counting of the money from the collection (174), which later became the subject of the first poem in Catholic Boy Blues (31-32). In The Ripest Moments, a wonderful account of American country life during the 1950s, the local priest is identified by name: Othmar Schroeder (173). He lived from 1914 until 1988. In its issue of August 10, 2007, the New York Times reported about the Schroeder case and the measures taken by the Bishop from the Diocese of Evansville to dismantle the honors of the dubious Monsignor.
In the meantime, Catholic Boy Blues has not only proven its therapeutic value for the author himself but also for other victims. It appears to this reviewer that literature, especially poetry, is at its best when it fights injustice and any kind of abuse. Is such littérature engagée literature in the strict, formalistic sense? That probably has to be decided from case to case. Norbert Krapf has certainly shown courage by fighting a well-established, abusive regime of silence and by giving the world an account of growing-up pains that one does not wish on any child.
Point Pleasant, New Jersey Gert Niers
Included with permission.