If I Falter at the Gallows
by Edward Mullany
Publishing Genius Press, October 2011
84 pages / $10 Buy from Publishing Genius
Once on Facebook a friend shared the shortest horror story in the world. Just like Facebook, this story involves the awkwardness of when too many people exist in your situation. Maybe let’s say “involves” in the same way somebody says “Hey, Ed, get over here, what do you think?” And Ed tries to say “No, no, I don’t want to get involved.” In any event, the shortest horror story in the world, supposedly, was written by Frederic Brown: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Note there’s no “then” before “there.” The world is basically the intrusion of the world. This presents the endless and (sure) terrifying awkwardness of simultaneity, which causes me to say I actually think Ed should get involved, if we’re talking terror, and by Ed we’re talking Edward Mullany, author of If I Falter at the Gallows, a book of barely unchoked poems, arrangements of scene and confession that scalpel the world like a goth kid who grew up to be a jeweler.
The book opens with an epigraph by Charles Simic: “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” The book is basically one answer to that question after another, if by answer we mean something like “beautiful cough.” Part of a person’s intrusion is their horrible face, from which such coughs issue, and part of the intrusion of being a person is the way we have so little control over our faces. Sometimes we might as well not “have” them at all, as Mullany points out in “Until We Have Faces:”
a princess in a tower.
A man came and stood
outside the tower, calling to her.
Then another man
came. And another. Three
men stood outside
the tower, calling to her.
Sometimes even persons from Persia worry about their faces, no matter how hard they aspire to what they think of (and what these poems think about) as virtues: faith, love, faithful love, the utmost faith of selfless love, doomed martyrdom. All virtues nettled and thorned by the intrusion of thinking, which is something even the cover of Gallows knows, featuring as it does the following/faltering instruments of thinking’s aspiration toward virtue: a kneeling pray-er, a bayonet, a Siberian coat, and a dog who won’t abandon anyone. But back to Persia and “The Faithful Persian:”
city, where the faces
of women I do not
know and the faces of women
I do know are
hidden from me.
There is a lot of seeing and not seeing in these poems, plus some lepers, but mostly—as in the above poem—there are a whole lot of men and women. Whole Lots, as in pretty much every speaker feels to me like Lot, even though I don’t really know enough about Lot to say that, but hey, I can feel what I feel, especially when I also feel holes of love, as in “The Poet Envisions His Death:”
you more each
day, you for
whom I’ve never
written a love
Have I mentioned these are all whole poems I’m quoting here? Have I mentioned how well the titles augur the poems, and yes shut up I know I’m being too fancy there, and okay I admit I can never remember the difference between “auger” (a drill bit) and “augur” (to soothsay). But mostly what I want to say is the titles of these poems are like when a really tall and weird-ass stranger who reminds you not so much of David Lynch as of the best episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” literally shows up to help you fix your car in the dark, and says “Don’t mention it,” and then keeps saying that when he shows up in your dreams. As in the titles of these two poems:
Two horses without riders, but saddled as if riders had been on them, were seen grazing near the side of the road.
Some of the retreating soldiers
who were retreating because they’d seen other soldiers
though there had been no order to retreat,
died retreating anyway.
Okay, I know you know how to cross your arms, so let me admit that a very few of the intrusions in Gallows feel distractingly unrefined (“Like Neal Cassady tired”) or self-parodic (“quiet rain” falling into “bleak lakes” on empty “estates”), but this is also one of those very few books that—actually. Actually let me ask you: is there a certain piano you have access to, like maybe one only you know about, and you have to climb a ladder to get to it, and only one key works? Dust or whatever goes without saying. If so, go ahead and press that key over and over and read “Ode to the Bayoneted Soldier:”
In the woods beside the snowy
field, the footprints
There are a few major things you potentially are when you can say a thing like: “No / one is with me, yet I hear singing.” You are crazy, maybe, or dead (“A Good Death” is the title of the poem where those lines come from) or more likely you are that thing that happens in dreams where you are trying to run but you can’t run, except instead of running we mean you are trying to be one big human cry.
In Edward Mullany’s If I Falter at the Gallows, the shortest horror story goes on forever, but the doorknob is exquisitely carved, probably out of some kind of bone you really feel like you’ve seen before, and that’s what you can’t stop thinking about while you listen to the knock. In other words, the relentless intrusion of cognition versus the relentless intrusion of death. In Edward’s words: “I have a question, but I’ll only ask if no one’s around.” Sorry, Edward, but your book is too haunting not to haunt back.