Reviews of Bittersweet Along the Expressway:
Poems of Long Island

Book Review

By Mindy Kronenberg

I first became familiar with Norbert Krapf's poetry from an anthology I got in the early eighties called On good Ground: Poems & Photographs of Eastern Long Island. This oversized, glossy paperback (a rare find in book stores these days) contained a poem "Arriving on Paumanok," which creates a dreamy excursion on the road to "The Island with its breast long drawn out" (Whitman). Krapf details his arrival with the excitement and anticipation of an explorer:

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.

As this journey continues, the poet/narrator chants the names of the towns, enjoying their exotic sound ("He turns them/ on his tongue like strange herbs/ 'Cutchogue...Patchogue...Ponquogue,'") while becoming immersed in the history and beauty of Long Island. This poem opens Krapf's newest collection Bittersweet Along the Expressway, and it is a fitting beginning to a book brimming with poems that are artful and personal, each evoking a spiritual connection to the places and people depicted.

"A Pressed Flower for a Poet," written in memory of poet David Ignatow (whose work also appeared in On good Ground) is expressed in simple and poignant language:

I wanted to send you flowers,
but I could not be sure
what kind would be plain
enough to suit your taste.
So I sent you this dry
flower of pressed words
you did not have to
find the right spot
for in the light,
water every other day,
or set in the garden

when its roots bore
through the hole
in the bottom
of its clay pot

Krapf has tremendous affection for the local flora and fauna. We witness a crow circling above commuter traffic, who "climbs above apartment complexes/toward a grove of oaks // on the highest ridge in the county," surveying the suburban vista as a dark emissary from an earlier time. "The Hawk in the Driveway," has a sobering effect of its own: in the midst of holiday fanfare and "visions of angels/and sugarplum fairies," an injured hawk is discovered holding ground in the driveway. We are struck by the contrast of images, and the reader shares the disturbing moment with the poet:

A mangled wing presses
against his side,
talons clutch
an invisible perch:

the light
of the suburbs
frozen into
his eyes

Among the most touching selections are poems about Krapf's children, both adopted and both possessing a magical innocence that help him connect to the natural world. In "The Visitor," his young daughter is enchanted by a new guest in their yard:

climbs onto the Quaker bench,
presses her nose flat against
cold glass, and chortles,
Birt! A hairy woodpecker,
the first we have seen,
flutters onto a log
of the dead ash I felled
along main street.
This is a discovery that excites the child as much as it redeems the father/poet who then forgets the sound of traffic "like bad memories" and describes the spray of wood dust as "holy water." Likewise, in "Daniel Conducts," his infant son watches sparrows land on and rise from a feeder, the whole event building into a movement both musical and wondrous:

The more they peck, the louder
he coos. When he raises his

arms and flails in excitement,
they lift like a cloud

and drift into the forsythia
along the wire fence,

leaving a splatter of white
bars and notes on the ground.

Krapf blends his memories and poetic tales to include references to the Midwest of his childhood, his European ancestry, and his reverence for the old homes and ghosts of Long Islanders. Each poem is a marker on the road to his identity, and each contains special meaning beneath the surface.

An interesting pairing occurs early in the book, where two poems, "Sycamore on Main Street," and "Ancestral Voices" face each other. In the first, a tree is personified as an ancient survivor ("stands like a resolute/deserter of its own kind"), its roots crawling a great distance and depth to find sustenance. In the second, the poet plumbs the depths of his own origins and imagines he hears "the muted voices/of relatives" in subway tunnels, "Who were buried back in Midwest/village cemeteries before/I was born", including the "mustachioed German faces/paling in piety" and who became "more fully fleshed" in the bawdy stories told by his father. If the poet/traveler could combine the lessons of the past and present, then he could make sense of who and what he is: ancestors
might pull up at this
New York Station and cry
out the directions
which would light curves
in the long tunnel
leading to myself.

It is a journey that is emotionally rewarding and artfully realized.

A Quarterly Small Press Review
Fall 2000

Mindy Kronenberg teaches writing and literature at Empire State College. She is the author of Dismantling the Playground and The Gravity of Desire, poetry collections