Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday Muse Reads 'Catholic Boy Blues'

. . . if you learn how to listen to the deepest part
of yourself,  that's where the most important words
that are yours come from. . . .*
~ Poet and Writer Norbert Krapf

Cover, Catholic Boy Blues
Photograph by Author's Pastor Given to Parents in 1950s

For former Indiana Poet Laureate** Norbert Krapf, it took nearly 50 years of listening to the deepest, locked-away part of himself to address the profound abuse to which his Catholic parish priest subjected him when Krapf was a child. During the period of that abuse, the priest took the photograph (see image above) that became part of the cover art for Krapf's 2014 autobiographical collection Catholic Boy Blues (Greystone Publishing), and gave it to Krapf's parents. That haunting photograph, an evocative visualization of the painful words comprising Krapf's poems, contains both dark secret and starker truth. Krapf wrestles with both over the course of his four-part collection by assuming four dramatically different yet intertwined voices: the boy who suffers sexual abuse, the man who sets upon the "healing journey" that requires reconciling the boy to the adult he became, the priest whom Krapf allows to engage in dialogue with the boy, who finds in himself the extraordinary courage to speak back once and for all, and a wise figure Krapf calls "Mr. Blues". The latter speaks in four voices, too — friend, advice-giver, counselor, mentor — that if they could be sounded as one, might best be described as "savior", for Mr. Blues ultimately helps the boy Krapf was and the man Krapf is today to "break free" of "the language of pain" to sing as "one with the spirit inside me" where hope and forgiveness, even love, reside. Mr. Blues teaches boy and man to see that

there's always a hopeful boy inside the man.
Deep down lives a hopeful boy inside the man
won't quit fighting till he comes out best he can.

In that final "Love Song for  Mr. Blues" from which the above lines are quoted we find all the reasons Krapf is able to survive his harrowing journey.

* * * * *

Catholic Boy Blues, Krapf's twenty-sixth book, is dedicated to "my sisters and brothers of any age in all lands abused by priests or other authority figures". As anyone who pays even slight attention to the news knows, an enormous group of Catholics and former Catholics — Krapf now known to be among them — suffered a silencing, only now starting to be reversed, because of the presence of priest-pedophiles in their church. Krapf movingly describes that silence:

Not even the great
visionary wordsmiths
Isaiah and Jeremiah

had to find words
to tell their people
how it feels

for a boy
to be so defiled
by a priest

that for fifty years
he keeps his mouth shut
even to those he loves.
~ "Not Even Isaiah and Jeremiah" 

In his acknowledgment in the Preface that his "responsibility and mission as a poet" oblige him to share the "dirty little secret" with the public, Krapf, now 70, bears startling witness to art's power to save when, as the persona Mr. Blues says in "Mr. Blues Wakes Up", we can "sing it straight".

* * * * *

Krapf draws this collection of poems from the 325 that, he writes in his Preface, "began to come, with volcanic force, night and day". His recognition that "the time had come to testify" and his inspired approach to handling his difficult subject make for explicit and emotionally complex writing. Indeed, the voices in Catholic Boy Blues resound with anger, "heavy hurt", resentment, the shame and sorrow of "dirty old memories", descriptions of gut-wrenching violations by a priest who "taught the apprentice hunters / what it means to be hunted" ("Priest as Hunter"), and heart-felt feelings of abandonment and despair, perhaps, most sadly, because he had "parents who had no clue about the plot" ("Little Boy Blue Playbill") of the story Krapf was living. More than once I had to put aside my reading, so filled I was with revulsion and anger at what Krapf the child was subjected to:

[. . .]
Nobody to speak to me
or for me, nobody to see

where his hot hands went,
nobody to help me vent. 

Not to have any voice.
Not to have any choice.

To be left all alone
sore to the bone.
~ from "The Boy to the Man He Became"

The collection is no easy read. In relating his experience along "the rocky road toward forgiveness and healing", Krapf holds nothing back to ensure that as we travel with him, we don't miss the photographs he's taken and exposed, as in "The Hand" ("The hand that reaches / for the altar boy's crotch // rubs oil on the forehead / of the dying....") and poems such as "Pedophilia Nursery Rhyme", its title alone speaking volumes. And the questions Krapf asks — "Where Was God?", "You Wonder?", "Nuns", "Who Needs Dante?" — are the same we ask ourselves while reading. We cheer at poems such as "Cut the Crud, Priest" and "The Boy Shoves Back", and, like Krapf, we, too, want to hear the priest "Singing in the Slammer".

Remarkably, despite the "lasting memories" of his life-altering experience during childhood, Krapf finds refuge and solace, here in the perceptive, insightful person of Mr. Blues—the figure we all need in our lives. In "This Is Not the End", it is Mr. Blues who makes clear that even though "[n]obody in any of these stories, / wherever they take place, will // live happily ever after", it is possible that "if people / can summon what it takes to tell // the truth, they can live together and help others find their voice":

 One voice singing by itself can
   sound awfully small, but several

voices lifting as one can make
      a chorus that sings a mighty song.

In Catholic Boy Blues, Norbert Krapf adds his own huge and important voice to the choir. Long after his poetic aria has come to its end, his listeners will still hear his songs of lamentation and rejoice in jubilation "at growing together" in love that clears us a path out of our pasts.

* 2008-2010 (Read Monday Muse profile. Krapf has received a number of honors, most recently the 2014 Glick Indiana Authors Award (Regional).)

Norbert Krapf on FaceBook

Note: Norbert Krapf has recorded an essay, "A Boy Who Finally Spoke Out", that will air in the near future on NPR's "All Things Considered" program. Check Krapf's FaceBook page or Website for details. The essay also will be available at the site of the Indianapolis Spirit & Place Festival. Krapf's essay "Poetry and the Blues", which he wrote for the Indiana Author Awards site, is available on the site's blog. (My thanks to Norbert Krapf for this additional information.)

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