V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




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.

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 Center.
    Bloodroot presents 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.
            (“The Language 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 clothes.
        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 breath
        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. “Paumanok!”
        he whispers, savoring his Whitman,
        local aborigine. “Paumanok,” he says
        half aloud. He feels salt water swaying
        on every side of him. He looks around
        for the rows and rows of ripening
        corn he’d sighted down since he was
        pushed from the womb. None. Expressways.

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.

        Monika, Monika
        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 an 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 work.

        At the end of the afternoon, my father
        would clean and oil every tool, stack

        them neatly in the shed he had put up
        under the sugar maple, and stand

        in the light of the setting sun and savor
        the green order he had given the garden.
                (“The Gardener,” 6)

Especially, it is a spirituality expressed through the age-old rituals of Roman Catholicism.

        Out of courtesy, the father of the bride,
        who is Catholic in name only, turns to
        the father of the groom, who is as Catholic
        as German-Catholics can be, and asks if

        he will please say a prayer before
        the meal begins. The face of the father
        of the groom turns almost as white
        as his hair, he looks down at his

        china plate . . ..
        There is a pained silence in the big
        house in Terre Haute, Indiana. Finally
        the mother of the groom begins to say,
        “Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts,”
        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 heavenly transcendence.

        I played a tape

        I made of songs you loved, in the old tongue.
        I saw your lips shape some of the words.
        Once you voiced a line in a high register,

        and almost smiled. I knew you were sailing
        back to rejoin the father who died when
        you were but a little girl. It was clear

        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
        one another
        the kind of airy
        embrace spirits
        offer when they
        find themselves
        together again
        in the same world.

    Bloodroot 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 Luebbehusen (142).
    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


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