In the first issue of the museum of americana, we were lucky enough to publish a poem by former Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf called “B.B. King Rides His Bicycle.” The controlling image, first of all, is a bit playful and amusing, especially if we allow ourselves to imagine King as the heavyset elder bluesman he is today. And the way each stanza carries over into the next gives the feeling of constant motion, every “and” or “but” reminding us of the change of direction, the constant up-and-down pumping of King’s legs as he pedals through the images of his life and legacy. It’s an uplifting tribute, full of affection, and a poem I really, really admire. I was thrilled we were able to publish it, and I quickly shuffled Krapf’s latest collection, Songs in Sepia and Black and White, to the front of my reading list.
I’ve been moving around in Songs in Sepia . . . ever since, reading two or three poems at a time in spare moments between classes or before bed, and I’ve been moved to personal reflection by Krapf’s openhearted explorations of heritage, homage, influence, and unselfconscious fascination with literary, genetic, and geographic roots.
As the four sections of the book unfold, the poems--interspersed with thematically-tied photographs--recall for us the literal and metaphorical landscapes from where their voices derive – ancestral Germany, the old immigrant Midwest, the deep woods of childhood, the American literary and musical landscapes of Dickinson, Whitman, Leadbelly, Guthrie, and Dylan. We get poems of beautifully distilled memory, and when there is no direct memory, when the seed of a poem sprouts from a past that predates the poet, from a postcard or a photograph, let’s say, then we get beautifully imagined memory, rumination, speculation. I’m typically drawn to poetry that jumps and sprawls and meanders suddenly off course. I like the jarring effect of the unexpected leap. But Krapf’s poetry works for me in much the opposite way, and I find I like it even more for that difference. Each poem here convinces the reader that its subject is the most important matter in the world at a given moment. It's no wonder Whitman shows up in the collection. His enthusiasm is everywhere in Krapf's work.
"The Boy in the Saloon" exudes a beery, boisterous immigrant optimism without a hint of cynical irony. "Young Hunter's Prayer" finds holy ritual in the act of hunting. "Christmas Paper Mountain Drifts" gives us the eyes and heart of a child again. "The Mayberry Cafe," "Monon Memories," and "The Old America" conjure details of a past that will never again be.
I love all of these, and "The Fiddler," too, about the simple joy of remembering the lives that came before your own; and the series of poems that includes "The Voice" (hear Krapf perform "The Voice") and "Hoosier Dylan" and "Letter to Bob Dylan With One Eye Closed" and "The Gift" and that explores, expresses, examines, and exalts The Minnesota Bard; and "Patoka Visions" and "Wild Onions," poems about the timelessness of nature and the memories, personal and communal, that stow away inside it; and many others besides-- and I'm willing to bet friends of sturdy, sincere American poetry will love them, too.