~JOHN D. GROPPE~
HOOSIER'S LEGACY: NORBERT KRAPF'S
Though centered in family, domestic
chores, and a small town,
Indiana is no cocoon and is a part of a larger
and more complex world.
A new poetic voice has risen out of the
hills and woods of southern Indiana, Hoosier poet laureate Norbert
Krapf. His latest collection, Bloodroot:
Indiana Poems (Bloomington, IN: Quarry Books, 2008), makes his
work easily accessible. The author or editor of 22 books, most of them
poetry collections including chapbooks, Krapf was named Indiana poet
laureate in June, 2008. Born and raised in Jasper, Indiana, educated at
Saint Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, Indiana, and the University of
Notre Dame, he has returned to settle in Indianapolis after his
retirement from the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, where
he taught from 1970 until 2004 and also directed the C. W. Post Poetry
40 new poems under the heading “Local News: Poems 2005-2007” and also
selections from five of his earlier collections. All the Bloodroot poems are, he confesses
in the preface, “rooted in his native place.” He gives voice to that
place as he lets it
up from the landscape
and allows it to speak
in that part of the ear
that never unlearned
how to listen to what
is deepest as you give
yourself to the pull
of the place.
of Place,” 72)
Part of the pull is the woods and animals, for it was while sitting in
a sycamore, surveying “the landscape of hill / and hollow I love,” he
says, “I found my voice / and trilled my song.”
An even deeper source of inspiration for Krapf is
the German immigrants who settled in Dubois County, cleared the trees
to farm, developed wood-working skills and the local hardwood furniture
industry. Like Seamus Heaney in his poem about his father chopping
peat, Krapf has a profound appreciation for the everyday tasks that
sustain life and give birth to a new generation. This appreciation can
be seen in “Sister Soap” about the process of making lye soap which
Burns the grime off stained
peels the psoriasis off scaly
skin stretched over an elbow,
makes the hair on your head
stand on end squeaky clean,
gives back the power the family
lost when it moved to town.
Though centered in family, domestic chores, and a
small town, Krapf’s Indiana is no cocoon and is a part of a larger and
more complex world. That world emerges forcefully in his Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany
(St. Louis: Time Being Books, 1997), a collection based on his various
visits to Germany, sometimes as a Fulbright scholar, sometimes tracing
his German ancestry. There in geometric gardens full of geraniums and
well-tended farms, he found the familiar, as his forebears brought such
careful husbandry and industriousness with them to the new country. He
also found the horrors of World War II, especially in the Bavarian
national museum exhibit on the Jews of Bavaria. There on a list of
names of Jews transported to the death camps was a familiar name in a
most unfamiliar place—Krapf. A Klara Krapf was among the Jews
transported. She died in Theresienstadt in 1943. That discovery gave
rise to a series of poems that make up nearly half of Blue-Eyed Grass.
These poems of Germany are not part of his Indiana
collection, but they are an equally important register of this Hoosier
voice. Still his German heritage is much in evidence in these Indiana
poems, most poignantly in “The Mandolin and the Tenor,” where he dwells
on a scene created in his memory by stories his mother had told him
about her father. He never heard her father’s voice, but she made it
present to him.
Winter nights when the animal
hung frozen in the barn
you gathered wife and six
children around the wood stove
in the old farmhouse,
picked a delicate, haunting
tune on that most American
of instruments, the mandolin,
and lifted your tenor toward
the cold Indiana heavens
as you sang for the family
that most German love song
of loss, Du, du liegst
mir im Herzen.
Krapf’s education provided him with literary
allusions and ancestry, which enable him to stay within his Hoosier
voice and yet join it to a larger chorus. He opens the selection of
poems “Bittersweet on the Expressway” with “Arriving on Paumanok” and
identifies his arrival on Long Island with Whitman’s.
A Midwesterner, an inlander,
a lover of the interior,
arrives on Long Island.
he whispers, savoring his Whitman,
local aborigine. “Paumanok,” he
half aloud. He feels salt water
on every side of him. He looks
for the rows and rows of ripening
corn he’d sighted down since he
pushed from the womb. None.
Perusing a Long Island map listing the names of towns coined by
Indians, “‘Cutchogue. . . Patchogue. . . Ponquogue,’ / he
intones. ‘Wantagh and Wickapogue.’” Feeling more at home, he
“begins / to hear voices from the interior” (51).
Other allusions and identifications with direct
references to Frost, Rilke, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut,
Etheridge Knight, and others further enlarge the range of his voice. To
his literary allusions he has also added jazz. Since returning to
Indiana, Krapf has begun a series of readings in which he accompanies
and is accompanied by jazz pianist Monika Herzig and other musicians.
They have produced Imagine: Indiana
in Music and Words (Bloomington, IN: Acme Records, 2007). Some
of the poems he wrote for that collaboration. These poems and others he
has also read in performances with Herzig, such as “Etheridge Knight at
the Chatterbox” and “On the Road with the Hampton Sisters,” are Indiana
poems but in a different register. Some celebrate jazz in Indiana.
what have you
gone and done?
You laid a flatted fifth
in our ears, let us see
that jazz is beneath our feet
as we walk these streets
and in this American air
as we breathe and the music
will never stop as long
as one heart beats.
(“What Have You Gone and Done,” 268)
“Etheridge Knight at the Chatterbox” celebrates Knight, who became a
poet while a prisoner in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City and
upon discharge made Indianapolis his home until he died.
Among the many returns to the country he came from
are some poems about sports, as the ritual of athletic competition is
important part of the preparation for manhood for many young men. Part
of the “stuff that dreams are made on,” they provide an opportunity in
a limited environment—and all environments are limited—to move beyond
those limits. Through them one participates in a larger world or at
least on a higher plane. Among these poems are “The Dropped Pigskin,”
and “Basketball Season Begins.” Sports is a dream world where young men
explore what they might become. In “Dream of a Hanging Curve,” the poet
is young again, at the bat, anticipating a pitch he can put away.
If the dream comes true,
do not let me expect it
will ever happen again.
Do not let me change what
I have been doing that
got me where I am.
Let me stay here as long
as I can give what I have
been given to contribute.
Clearly there is a deep spiritual current running through these poems.
Partly, it is a spirituality encountered in nature.
I stood deep
in those woods,
eyes wide open
for the shapes
of leaves, ears
tuned to the cries
of birds and cuttings
of box squirrels.
To breathe the air
of the woods was
to give thanks for
what was there
and nowhere else
and stood in need
of no thanks for
being what it was.
(“Woods Hymn,” 109)
It is also, like the poetry of Wendell Berry, a
spirituality of the bond between people and a place expressed through
At the end of the afternoon, my
would clean and oil every tool,
them neatly in the shed he had
under the sugar maple, and stand
in the light of the setting sun
the green order he had given the
(“The Gardener,” 6)
Especially, it is a spirituality expressed through the age-old rituals
of Roman Catholicism.
Out of courtesy, the father of
who is Catholic in name only,
the father of the groom, who is
as German-Catholics can be, and
he will please say a prayer before
the meal begins. The face of the
of the groom turns almost as white
as his hair, he looks down at his
china plate . . ..
There is a pained silence in the
house in Terre Haute, Indiana.
the mother of the groom begins to
“Bless us oh Lord and these thy
and the meal can begin.
(“A Terre Haute Story,” 35)
Krapf’s father “could speak to God only in German.”
The most moving expressions of spirituality are the
poems about the death of his mother, for instance “A Silent Prayer,”
(249-50), “The Time Has Come” (176-77), and “Eighth
Anniversary” (251-52). He concludes “Hugging the Spirit,” a poem of
anticipation of her death, with faith in her and by implication our
I played a tape
I made of songs you loved, in the
I saw your lips shape some of the
Once you voiced a line in a high
and almost smiled. I knew you
back to rejoin the father who
you were but a little girl. It
as the sunlight that you were
ready to go.
I tried not to hold on too long,
for I knew
that spirit cannot be contained
in one world.
“The Reunion” envisions his parents once more together after death.
He looks up
in surprise, says:
“Oh, I didn’t know
you were coming!”
“It took me so long!”
she sighs. He moves
over to make room,
Mother settles down
beside him once more,
and they give
the kind of airy
offer when they
in the same world.
is a collaboration with a superb photographer, David Perini, now of
Chicago and formerly a staff photographer for the Jasper newspaper, The Herald. Among other
distinctions he has received, Perini was named newspaper photographer
of the year in both 2003 and 2006 by the Indiana News Photographers
Association. This is Krapf’s second collaboration with a photographer
in a collection of Indiana poems. His first collaboration was the
splendid Invisible Presence: A Walk
through Indiana in Photography and Poems (Bloomington, IN:
Quarry Books, 2006) with Darryl Jones. Jones’ color photographs are
impressionistic images taken on Polaroid film and manipulated while the
images were developing. Except for the stunning color cover photo of a
bloodroot blossom, leaf, and red root, the photos in Bloodroot are black and white. Even
through most of Krapf’s poems are memory excursions into the 1950s or
even earlier in the poems based on family stories, Perini’s photos were
taken in the last few years, most of them in and around Jasper,
Indiana. Nonetheless, they capture the mood and texture of those
earlier times as evident, for example, by the 2005 shot of hog
butchering (7) to accompany “Butchering: After a Family Photograph.”
Both the poems and the photos can stand on their own merits as did the
poetry selected from four of Krapf’s earlier books, but together they
create a dynamic interaction. There are too many photos to comment on.
Most outstanding are the photos of the blue heron taking flight (159),
the wild oats (178-79), and especially the portrait of Martina
Krapf’s earliest publications were chapbooks
produced in small runs, such as Lines
Drawn from Dürer (St. Paul, MN: Ally Press, 1981). His
first full-length collection, Somewhere
in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins (St. Louis, MO:
Time Being Books, 1993) came twelve years later. With the publication
of Bloodroot by Quarry Books
of Indiana University Press more readers can come to appreciate his
poetic talent and insight.
Krapf’s voice comes out of the connection of a
parochial place to a much larger history. As James Alexander Thom
affirms in the Foreword, ”Krapf’s spirit of place can be specifically
local and immediate while encompassing centuries and other homelands”
(xv). His poetry is about the past but also about the present and
the future. In these poems he lovingly and thoughtfully accepts his
birthright and then regenerates it in a new mode for his children and
for us and our children. In reflecting on a map to trace the path of
his ancestors from the old world to the new, he writes:
Where we are sailing
is who and what we
become and the legacy
we build as we move
toward a future we make
for those who follow.
We call this love.
We hang this map
of our history on the wall,
for those who come
after us, and put our
fingertips on all the dots
that connect and show
what leads to ourselves.
(“What the Map Says,” 163-64)
What one has been endowed with is a major part of what one has to endow
the future. Out of this endowment Krapf has given us a great legacy.
Bloodroot: Indiana Poems,
Norbert Krapf. Quarry Books ISBN 9780253352248 $24.95
© by John D. Groppe