Gert Niers, Yearbook of German-American Studies, Vol. 46 (2011, comes out a year late), pp. 206-208.
Songs in Sepia and Black & White.
By Norbert Krapf. Photographs by Richard Fields. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, Quarry Books, 2012. 214 pp. $ 24.00.
After Invisible Presence (2006) and Bloodroot: Indiana Poems (2008), Songs in Sepia and Black & White is Norbert Krapf’s third poetry volume published at Indiana University Press. Altogether, this poet laureate of his home state Indiana (2008-2010) has published more than twenty books, mostly lyrical works. In his recent poetic production, Krapf has widened his thematic focus on art (Bildgedichte) and music. However, the strongest recurring theme remains the encounter with space and place, including natural environment and locale, often experienced as a spiritual event or epiphany.
Shedding light on local history sets also family history into perspective. The four-part volume begins with a poem whose title is also the title of this part of the collection and of the entire book (3). The poem, accompanied by a portrait (2), commemorates the author’s German-American grandfather. The second poem, “The Kaiser and the Little Girl’s Tongue” (4), also facing a photo (5), is dedicated to the author’s mother and makes reference to the anti-German hysteria during World War I, in particular the ban against the German language. This section features also memories of childhood and adolescence in small-town Midwest America, sometimes in the form of an anecdote like “The Beatles Cut” (36-38) or “The Barbed Wire Tattoo” (39-40). The German connection is often established by the father figure. In the author’s memory, his father appears larger than life. More than the other three parts of this collection, part one can be considered a poetic gallery of German-American ancestors and the world in which they lived. Of course, there is a breath of nostalgia in both the poems and the pictures, but this collection does not attempt any filiopietistic or chauvinistic indoctrination. It rather reveals itself as an unobtrusive homage to the author’s family, a poetic commentary on his social and ethnic background, that of rural Southern Indiana. The town of Jasper, where the author grew up, has a strong German tradition, and German family names are nothing unusual.
Part two of this volume took its title from its first poem, “A Blank Piece of Paper” (49-50) which theorizes about the mission of becoming a writer. It is the section that is mainly dedicated to literature and those authors who – like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson – inspired the author of this book. Retrospection is a recurring theme. The strong autobiographic background of these poems allows the reader to take the speaking voice (the poetic ego or das lyrische Ich) for the voice of the author himself. Since literature is made up of words, Krapf also gives some humoristic or whimsical advice about the use and value of words, as in “Caveat Emptor” (89) and “A Word Story” (93-95).
Probably the most ambitious part of this volume is the third: “Practically with the Band.” The title of this section is taken from “I’m Practically with the Band” (102-104). This poem is dedicated to a folk and blue grass band from Indianapolis. The two photos which accompany the text refer to musical events in which the poet laureate participated with his writings. While Krapf’s texts normally follow the style of the narrative poem which is rather common in contemporary American poetry, those poems which refer to musicians often follow a different pattern, namely repetition (like a refrain), uncomplicated syntax, and occasionally rhyme. Sometimes text samples from famous songs – easily recognizable for anybody who shares the author’s enthusiasm – are woven into the poem. Reminiscent of German church music and folksongs by the Romantics, the author often works with repetition of entire verses and with a choice of unpretentious words that are easily understood and remembered. Therefore, some of these poems could serve as the lyrics for future musical compositions. Working on a synthesis of music and poetry also brought the author repeatedly on stage with musicians – in the Indianapolis Artsgarden, the Athenaeum Theatre, and numerous other venues.
The musician who received the most attention in this volume is clearly Bob Dylan, followed by Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo. These famous singer-songwriters are of course known for their social commitment, and it is – at least for this reviewer – reassuring to notice that Krapf’s poetry does not lose itself in a non-committal l’art pour l’art. Krapf pays also homage to John Lennon who engaged in more politically and socially relevant songs after the break-up of the Beatles. “The Day John Lennon” (131-132) offers a personal remembrance of December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was murdered in New York City. In the last strophe the poet finds himself in agreement with the message of Lennon’s famous pacifist song “Imagine.” The crossover from poetry to music reminds the reader of the origin of poetry – in ancient Greece, lyrical poetry was sung.
Another art form incorporated into this poetry collection is the earlier type of the photograph. The selection of almost nostalgic photos is tied into the greater context of this volume: a tribute to the poet’s home state that becomes more and more a state of mind. The geographical landscape reveals itself as the inner landscape of the poem and the poet. It is at times a small world, but one seen from a universal perspective. However, the poems which are paired with images by master photographer Richard Fields are not simple interpretations of what the other medium offers, but gain their esthetic quality and artistic independence according to their own criteria. This ekphrastic genre is known and practiced in Germany as the Bildgedicht and can be traced back to the author’s early poetry collections.
The title of part four of this collection is also the title of the last poem of the book, “Moon of Falling Leaves” (206-207). The first verse sets the tone and gives the explanation for the rest of the poem: “I am a canoe carved of tulip poplar” (206). The leaves falling into the canoe as it drifts down the White River represent the various ethnic groups that settled in this area, their “names make the music / of this place we love” (206) – definitely a celebration of tolerance and multiculturalism. This section continues with aspects of German-American history, further exploration of Indiana heritage, and more poetic portraits of family members. It also contains under the title “Eberhard Reichmann at Peter’s Gate” (153) a heartfelt, yet slightly ironic tribute to the late German-American scholar from Indiana. Aware of his German roots, the author shares his thoughts while traveling through Bavaria (“Bavarian Blue”, 151) and gives a moral reflection about good and evil, freedom and captivity in “Questions on a Wall” (155-157), written on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the removal of the Berlin Wall. There are more memories of the father, but also of the mother (“What She Liked”, 185) and other family members. “Downtown Indy Freight Trains” (197-198) brings another remembrance of the old times. This one is connected with a vision of the mother: local history and family history belong together.
Pursuing a tri-fold creative concept that unites poetry, art in the form of photography, and music is certainly not a light challenge. Norbert Krapf has mastered it with remarkable virtuosity and once again reinforced his reputation as the pre-eminent German-American poet of the English language.
Point Pleasant, New Jersey Gert Niers