A review of
Songs in Sepia and Black and White
Reviewed by Sam Edgin
I live in Indiana. I haven’t always – I grew up out east in Maryland; but around seven years of my life have been here in “America’s crossroads”. There is a fondness for a place that creeps its fingers around your soul when you spend enough time there. The small sparks in life that wear near-indescribable beauty like a soft, old t-shirt get brighter, and you begin see their light reflected on and in those around you. Home isn’t simply where the heart is, it is the place and time in life where nature, history, emotions, and relationships mystically convene. I have begun see some of those sparks in Indiana, despite any resistances I put up when I first moved here to what seemed to be little more than a vapid expanse of farmland. When I read some of Norbert Krapf’s poetry, I see them better.
Krapf was Indiana Poet Laureate from 2008-2010. His most recent collection of poetry, Songs in Sepia and Black and White, is presented in conjunction with photographs by Richard Fields, former chief photographer of the Indiana department of natural resources. Born of shared loves for music, history, nature and art, the poet and the photographer use Songs to carry the readers through their life-sparks. It is an arrangement of what makes Indiana their home.
This volume is quintessential Indiana. By that, I mean that in my short habitation amidst the cornfields, forests, and crumbling towns of Indiana I have created for myself a picture of this place, one characterized by both sublime beauty and a lingering incompleteness. The incompleteness comes due mostly to my status as an outsider. Songs in Sepia transmutes the picture I have formed in my head to words, and it does it better than most anything I have seen.
Some of Krapf’s poetry is breathtakingly moving. Most of it is very insightful. Poems like “Orchard,” “The Boy in the Saloon,” “Maybe I Knew Him” or “The Boy and the Flying Squirrels” connect history of family and place and the influences of childhood to the poetry of adulthood. Others like “The Screech Owls Call,” “Promethian Prayer: To a Hawk,” and “Wild Onion” use nature to convey the entangled emotions of childhood and adulthood.
*** Other Books by Norbert Krapf
Krapf is at his best in those moments. When he reaches back and touches the past for insight into the present, when he recalls memories of his father and the activities they shared, or the time spent with his siblings, his words pound off the page like staccato beats from a drum. The way he joins history and emotion is wonderful. You feel a connection to his heritage, as though you were walking through the woods with his father or being affronted as well by changes in a place you thought you knew.
Other poems don’t have quite the impact. Some stretches of the book, like the odes to Walt Whitman or those dappled with lines pulled from Bob Dylan songs held little interest to me. Perhaps this would change for others with more affinity towards those masters, although I am not unfond of either Whitman of Dylan.
I also felt as though Krapf often struggled to finish his poems well. Some, like “The Campfire Poets” start beautifully with lines like “he said he was a poet of body and soul/ and all people; she said she wrote letters/ to a world that never wrote back,” only to end in a bit of faux-philosophical musing (“and I knew I’d found eternity/ off the side of a back road/ in the hill country woods”). Perhaps I just expect my poems to end with impact – to leave the reader reeling with a sense of wonder. Whatever the case, Krapf occasionally missed in wrapping up poems.
For those who have a connection to the fields and people of Indiana, or even places with marked similarities to Indiana, this is certainly a poetry collection that deserves to be picked up. For those with little to no connection with Indiana, some of Krapf’s work is worth reading if not just to see the emotion he conjures out of history. However, it still remains that this is a collection mainly about Indiana arranged by two of her local sons. I think that if I identified this state more with home I might feel more of a connection to some of these poems. Yet, this is not home. I will not be able to identify it as such, not, at least, until I leave. For now I will use what connection to place I do have in order to soak up as much of Norbert Krapf’s poetry as I can.