Sunday, November 13, 2011
Ralph Pennel: From the Twin Cities to the Paris of New England
By Doug Holder
Poet and writer Ralph Pennel met me in the comforting confines of the Bloc 11 Café in Union Square, Somerville to talk about the writing life. Pennel has moved from his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Somerville, Mass. He lives in the hinterlands of our town, where the Spanish eatery Dali looks across the street to the Wine Cask. Pennel reflected on the differences of the Midwest to that of New England:
“Everything in the Midwest is laid out in a grid—I find the winding and at times irrationally plotted streets in Somerville give it a looser or open vibe. There is a rigidity to the Midwest that I am not comfortable with. The writing community in Somerville is very welcoming. It seems the writing that happens in Minnesota stays in Minnesota—it doesn’t seem to leak out to the greater literary world.”
Pennel views himself equally as a poet and a writer. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University, and has taught on the college level for a number of years.
While in Minnesota, he founded with a few other folks, an online literary magazine titled The Midway Journal, coined after a section of Minneapolis that he resided in. He told me the journal publishes work that pushes boundaries— and accepts work in the genres of poetry and flash fiction. The current issue has work from noted local writer Timothy Gager, and past issues have had such Boston area wordsmiths as Steve Almond, Tara Masih and Alden Jones.
For Pennel a poem gets it start with an idea that sparks his agile mind, and then hopefully flames into a working poem.
Pennel most assuredly lives the writer’s life. He resides in a small, inexpensive apartment and edits his journal and teaches an online course or two. He also hits the open mics around town including Stone Soup in the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., and Somerville’s First and Last Word Reading Series held at the Arts Armory.
Pennel is planting roots in the community, and where there are roots, hopefully poetry flowers.
CONFIDING IN THE PRISON GUARD
“After me comes one more powerful than I . . . I baptize you with water,
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” -Mark 1:7-8
You see these garments? I made them.
With these hands. See here? This is the very place
I cut myself on the blade of my knife.
See how it has healed, how the flesh
has closed itself again, grown together, pink and new?
And this belt. I tanned it from the same beast.
She brought me to within sight of these city walls.
Then collapsed. I held her head in my lap,
stroking her neck until the sun set low,
and the night was filled with fire. It is true
what they say about the death of the day.
My soul, too, will rise above the parting sun soon enough.
No doubt you will be the one to set it free.
Ah, these hands. They have touched his head. His hair
filled my palms, slipped over and through my fingers,
until my hands were hidden, as if they, too, grew peaceably from his skin.
He said nothing when I lowered him into the river, his body weightless.
I was afraid I’d lose him to the current, his body swept downstream.
What would come of me then? I swear, when he stood, the water swimming
down his face and plunking into the river around him like fingers
on a harp, the day gave way to night, the sun smeared across
the edge of the earth, then raced across the sky in rivers of light.
I understand I am to lose my head. Will you grant me this then,
that I might wash my face and hair? And would you also share
what I have told you? Not now. But after Herodias has slipped her fingers
through my mane and lifted my bodiless head above her own,
into the light, my blood dripping to the floor, the shadow of night
drifting calmly over everything.