Reviewed by Andrew David King
Edward Mullany's If I Falter at the Gallows is the question of elision writ small. An encyclopedic collection of poems mostly ten lines or shorter, If I Falter at the Gallows picks away, chisel-like, at themes and topics that other poets dedicate multiple pages to: selfhood, the self's confrontation with the objects of the world, the variant natures of this world and its objects. It seems dubious to ask a book of poems with more white space than text to quiet any of these ancient debates, but Mullany applies his technique to each repeatedly and with admirable tenacity in such a way that silence itself becomes a sort of speech. An assortment of everyday items become recipients, in time, of Mullany's knife-sharp lineation, their fibers and atoms disassembled. The results are usually interesting, and sometimes even astonishing—in the way of "a picture of / a picture of / a sunrise," from the poem "Elegy for Myself as Father." Like an obsessive agoraphobe, Mullany yanks back the curtains between philosophy, religion, and art only to draw them in place again.
In If I Falter at the Gallows Mullany locates a profane lexicon for the sacred, and a sacred one for the profane. Neither masks the fear hooked by the collection's title, the hypothetical (or, as the book insinuates, probable) moment of hesitation before one's own death. But to construe If I Falter at the Gallows as a book invested mainly in what happens in those instances where we're forced to acknowledge the limitations of physical existence would be to miss most of what it has to say. The stunts of its metaphysical hoop-jumping can be found not in examinations of the obviously terrifying but also of the mundane: an "overripe banana on a hot day" ("Ode to the Holy Spirit,"), a truck rumbling past holy sites in Jerusalem ("The Streets of Jerusalem"), the sound of someone "cheerful… washing dishes in the bathroom" ("Sundays in Ordinary Time").
What to make of all these spiritual references? Not a solely spiritual conclusion: light, physics, the universe, and mathematics show up in these poems also, different beams in Mullany's scaffolding. Although the Biblical references are impossible to ignore, they can hardly be considered more than apparatuses enlisted to vivisect idols—and if those idols end up killed in the process, well, consider them collateral damage. There's no negligible amount of irony in using religious iconography to investigate or bypass religiously-defined meanings, but the fact that Mullany can avoid turning references to the Holy Spirit, lepers, Jesus, tombs, blind men, and bread into flat-out kitsch speaks to both the seriousness and the fluency with which he moves between the altar and the operating table. What he puts on one, he'd just as well put on the other. The seven-line poem "Golgotha (Charcoal on Paper)" is a case study:
And so the soldiers came and broke
the legs both
of one and of the other
that were crucified
with him; but when they came
to Jesus, and found
him already dead…
The poem's placement near the end of the book is a precarious one; by then, if the collection is read linearly, Mullany's stilted enjambments are already a formal presence recurring in the background. This technique produces echoes of broken bread in the breaking of the legs, hints at finding salvation in a Christ found deceased. It's harder to notice—and this is where the brilliance might be—a particular undercurrent in the poem, which consists entirely of text taken from Monsignor Ronald Knox's translation of the Gospel of John 19:32-33 in The Holy Bible: A Translation From the Latin Vulgate in the Light of the Hebrew and Greek Originals. The Bible, that supposed authority sourcing every "Christian" legend no matter how far removed from its roots, is knocked from its throne and becomes an object no greater than any of the others Mullany chooses to scrutinize. But to say that it loses its divinity in the process presupposes that which the book seems to wish to deny: the tenuousness of a stark break between the saintly and the secular. The book begins, after all, with a quotation from Charles Simic: "Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?"
There might be no better summarization for this collection than the ellipsis at the end of "Golgotha (Charcoal on Paper)." Mullany leads, but following is optional, and following often means leaving the page. What happens when the two Roman soldiers who have broken the legs of the executed men come upon the dead Christ? According to John 19:34, one of the soldiers pierces the body's side with a spear, and blood and water flow out—a rush of red onto the charcoal sketch, the blackness and whiteness of printed text invalidated. It's implied that the Bible is an insufficient container for its own images, unable to cope with its own consequences. Mullany himself seems conflicted, generally speaking, on the boundaries and benefits of narrative, as in his poem, "Against Narrative Poetry":
A black knife, a blue
And before such a Morse code-like transmission can even begin to be deciphered, "In Praise of Narrative Poetry" leaps from the facing page and scrambles the message:
Into the bleak
lake on the estate
on which no
one resides, falls
At first such a sequence might seem merely clever—a surface-level assessment that isn't wholly inaccurate. But to leave the analysis at that would do an injustice to the heavy lifting each poem is doing. The dialogue between them is a macro version of the micro exchange going on in "The Entombment of Christ," wherein a black dot on a white wall and a white dot on a black wall face each other. Negation, and negation's negation, in parallel placement— the assertion and its converse take the same fundamental shape. If Mullany's aim is to unnerve partisanship, he's done so; the tale cocooning in the former poem and the "if a tree falls in the forest" attitude—not to mention contradiction; if "no one resides" on the estate, does the author?—in the latter loosen each of their respective claims.
Mullany's poems often duel with their own wit in this way. Sometimes they lose that duel, and wit crumples to farce or artifice. This is the case with "Fourteen Hairdryers," a numerical listing of hairdryers that, at best, mocks the redundancy of titular exposition. But whatever missteps Mullany takes in his pursuit of bizarre insight are forgivable. This is especially true in the context of such plain-spoken, acidic poems as "Widowed," which describes a man stuck in impermeable grief who "entered [a] theater / alone," and who then "got up / and went out to the lobby and out / through the front doors and out into / the bright light." The Stein-esque permutations of conjoined syntax in this case embody, instead of question, the experience of an un-exalted but hyperreal encounter reminiscent of Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." The poems work best when they articulate the experience of thought, instead of explaining it post-hoc: "When I was ten I took a hatchet to frogs" comprises the entirety of the fittingly-titled "Because or Therefore." These experiences are often raw by definition, and even comic, whether they spoof our lionization of the dead ("Important"), how a landscape "you took pains to beautify" reverts to "natural disorder" ("Self-Reliance"), or how good and evil can be components of a story but not the story itself ("The Man from Shanghai").
The Latin word lacus, for "lake," underwrites the present-day lacuna, which ostensibly means "an unfilled space or interval." And though white space is crucial to If I Falter at the Gallows, its poems are more like bodies of water than pure absence. Though their contents and depths are indeterminable, they're plumbed in deceptively tiny forays. If conventional American short poems are too often mild-mannered dinner guests, polite pastiches of image and conclusion, then Mullany's poems are their evil twins. And he keeps their insidiousness almost seamless by refusing to (at least on their faces) give them mischievous grins. Though they stand no taller than their lyric cousins they refuse to stay in one place; though they document daily life, they refuse to make a glass museum of it; and though they don't necessarily bite harder, their jaws grip longer. They are, by and large, well-wrought short poems, hard and capable as keys—keys that have no need or want of doors, though they might open quite a few.