A literary pilgrimage to ancestral Germany

The Indianapolis Star
By Dan Carpenter

Title: Blue-Eyed Grass:
              Poems of Germany

Author: Norbert Krapf

Price: $12.50

Publisher: Time Being Books

Norbert Krapf's literary pilgrimage to his ancestral Germany begins and ends in a field of flax, the "blue-eyed grass," whose celestial blooming might have made feudal laborers of the Old World dream of the "blue-sky paradise" across the sea.

Whether America, as embodied in Krapf's native southern Indiana, turned out truly to be a paradise for those immigrants is a question his new book doesn't propose to answer. Surely the land of Bach and Cologne has as strong a claim. But neither country escapes this harrowing collection of poems without exposing paradise's flip side.

For all its bucolic title, pastoral cover art and lovingly rendered nostalgic scenes, Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany takes us on a walk through hell.

"No wonder so many people are dressed in black. No wonder so many shadows have found faces to disfigure. No wonder the cloth star on the overcoat of the man in the front row looks so luminous and apocalyptic."

Those lines from "A Freight Yard in Wurzburg" hint at the horror, helplessness and communal shame Krapf conveys in the climactic section of this book born of two decades of study trips to Germany.

His wife and two children were along on some of those visits, including a year's stay in 1988-89; and they are present in his poems. With their innocence and their questions, the young companions both sharpened the anguish and shielded their father from despair.

Bitterly as he conjures the Tannenbaums of Christmas hung with swastikas, abjectly as he struggles to explain the Holocaust to his children, the poet will not waste these images of Wurzburg and Nuremberg and Erlangen and all the other places where there used to be Jews. "The Star will continue to burn and shine," he writes. "The light will continue to pulse."

In half a lifetime of writing history and poetry about the Catholic communities of the Jasper area and their German antecedents, Krapf has shown a sense of place and ethnic identity that radiates out to universal brotherhood. In this, his most personal and yet his most magnanimous work, he reminds us of the all-American Walt Whitman, who remained "a part of all that I have met;" and of Wendell Berry, who sings of his beloved Kentucky that he has seen the worst and best of humankind there.

"In the city of Bach," Krapf writes, "I saw Felix Mendelssohn's furniture and art from Italy arranged in an elegant room and heard the story of how he saved the music of the master from neglect and how the Nazis then burned his music and tried to obliterate his name."

The names that mean German greatness appear frequently in the first half of Blue-Eyed Grass. The name that dominates the latter half is Krapf's own — taken in the early 19th century, evidently on government orders, by a Jewish family previously named Meier. Many in that family escaped the pogrom; among those who did not was Klara Krapf, hauled away and executed a half-century ago, possibly because she stayed behind to care for her parents when her six siblings left for America.

"If I could see your eyes and hear your voice," the American Christian Krapf cries out to this German Jewish Krapf, dead before he was born. With poem after poem, he tries to converse with her, to lay stones on the non-existent grave of her incinerated remains, to bear her to "the blue-sky paradise."

In the end, the best he can offer are his dark-eyed adopted children, Elizabeth and Daniel, born in Colombia. "Sensitive to every nuance of the horrors of nonacceptance, they refuse to accept your fate. They have adopted you, Klara, as one of their relatives, as we must all adopt one another."

An English professor at Long Island University, Krapf has written and edited several books in his specialty, including the 1993 poetry collection Somewhere in Southern Indiana. It shares with the new book an understated, concrete style and a tone of reverence for toil and artistry; but it cannot match the raw emotion of Blue-Eyed Grass, the naked candor that dares to strip away even the artifice of poetry itself at extreme times.

"What led to those last pages was not easy to do," Krapf told me recently. "Writing it was like a weight off my chest."

The burden he has laid down in Blue-Eyed Grass is his best work, drawn from his depths by a primal experience. It came at a price he would not have asked to pay, and his reward cannot be joy, only consolation.

Dan Carpenter is a copy editor for The Star and The News
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