REVIEWED BY SHANNON HENESY
A World Less Perfect for Dying In by Ralph Pennel |Cervena Barva Press, June 2015 |$17.00 | ISBN: 978-0-9861111-7-4 | 76 Pages
It’s rare to find an author so finely attuned to society’s idiosyncrasies as Ralph Pennel. He begins his debut collection, A World Less Perfect for Dying In, by illustrating what he searches for in poetry, aptly articulating his desired conjuration as “any world less perfect for dying in.” Pennel embraces this concept by fusing the collective melancholy of humanity with ethereal imagery that results in the near-unattainable beauty demonstrated in each of his poems, collectively invoking a universe which simultaneously awes and disturbs; not a word goes to waste.
A World Less Perfect for Dying In explores human nature at its core, weaving narratives together to achieve an inventive and original commentary on the inherent isolation which exists in our latent minds. Pennel introduces a handful of themes to the reader—religion, family, love, loss—all of which play off each other to adeptly represent humanity in its most naked form. He experiments with voices which are simultaneously alike and dissimilar, a strategy that serves to further our consideration of how we act when not consciously monitoring ourselves. Ultimately, the poems in this anthology offer a fresh perspective regarding our subconscious actions.
Pennel’s collection transports us to a world teeming with people, but still we feel alone, as in “Just Off the Hennepin Bridge,” when he writes:
“To think, last night, just a few blocks from here two men were shot to death over nothing. The man who did it was found at home, sitting in front of the TV. He was watching the news for his story. The men were no one he knew. … He needed to eat and he wanted a beer. Nothing more. Nothing personal.”
Language and imagery transform mere words into intricate constructs in the reader’s mind. “What We’ve Come to Expect from Beauty” encapsulates these qualities. Here, the speaker ruminates on the simplicity of human exchange, marveling at how society has streamlined the concept of interaction. In the second section of the poem, the speaker urges the audience to become self-aware of its active role:
“Let us suppose you haven’t yet felt included, that my insisting that we have pined together is nothing more than that—my pining and you haven’t wished beauty to find you, to welcome you to its table where you would sit, leaning over your elbows, slipping slowly forward till your hands touch like moon light descended on soft, forgiving snow. But I believe that we all, at the very least, should have some. Beauty, that is. Maybe even just a little more. That even in a poem about beauty we must be moved to see its two sure hands and how our own fit perfectly inside of them.”
This is just the beginning of Pennel’s sojourn into the realm of personal autonomy; he continues to reveal subtle nuances of human nature as the collection unfolds.
One of my favorite not-quite words is “sonder,” coined by John Koenig in his web series The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which defines newly invented words for strangely powerful emotions. Sonder, as Koenig defines it, is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
This word — sonder — expresses the “strangely powerful” emotion exuded in A World Less Perfect for Dying In. Even after setting the book down, we are left to our own wistful introspection.
Pennel’s journey begins with the self-examining “What I Look for In a Poem” and concludes with the poignant lines in “Making History”: “I will, no doubt, take this with me. This moment. Her voice. Perhaps I will pass it on. Or, perhaps it will die with me, coming to pass in a place far from home, a quiet safe place which will have no history, like you and me.” The poet comes full circle, leaving us to ponder whether he has reached his desired level of skill.
Work like Pennel’s can get lost in the crowd. Increasing numbers of publications are becoming available to the public, and stand-out chapbooks are being buried under those that are less well-written. I am, as such, grateful to have been introduced to A World Less Perfect for Dying In. Collections such as this deserve to be elevated to higher positions of recognition, and I would quickly recommend A World Less Perfect for Dying In to anyone searching for poems that require the reader’s active participation. I will not soon forget Pennel’s haunting images, nor the soul-searching of which I was a part. I look forward to what he has in store for us next.
Shannon Henesy is preparing to enter her third year at Salem College studying English and Creative Writing. She is on track to graduate with honors in the spring of 2017, and hopes to continue her studies and eventually obtain her doctorate in English. She has been published in the school’s literary magazine, Incunabula, each year since her enrollment. When she is not doing schoolwork, Shannon tutors other students at Salem’s Writing Center, writes her own poetry, and tries to find the time to read novels that are not assigned for class.