review + interview /// If I Falter at the Gallows by Edward Mullany

Posted By jatyler - 25th October 2011

I love a book that I have to fight to gain control of / over, but only if I can eventually win. Edward Mullany’s debut book If I Falter at the Gallows is the perfect representation of this battle. Part clever, part insightful, part layered, part simple, Mullany’s poetry both dominates the reader and allows us inside, a push / pull welcome mat that I am so thankful Mullany left out for us.

To begin with, the title If I Falter at the Gallows reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, which seems a strong compliment to the mixture of realism and imagination that permeates your book. Can you tell us a little about your use of realism and imagination throughout this collection?

When I was 8, my father took me and my brother and a couple of my sisters to a theater that sometimes showed old movies.  The feature was Oliver Twist – the 1948 black and white version.  But before the feature, there was a short film.  It was an old French adaptation of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  I remember being transfixed.  This was the first serious movie I’d ever seen; it was completely new to me. The black and whiteness of it.  The solemnity of the soldiers, the awful ceremony involved in hanging a man properly, or with dignity.  And then the horrible beauty of the story itself; the way you are led to believe that the prisoner might escape – that the rope breaks, that he falls into the river below, swims away, runs through the forest and into the arms of his wife – only to realize at the end that he is imagining it in the moment before he is hanged.

There is drama inherent to this plot, but it takes an artist to prevent this drama from being cheapened in its presentation.  I couldn’t have said so then, but I know now that the reason I was so taken by this movie is because the filmmaker was an artist.  He was, as Chekhov would have said, “not a confectioner” but “a man who has signed a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.”  This is what realism is capable of doing – not entertaining you, exactly, but enabling you to see the world with an almost holy clarity.  It can make you sad in a way that doesn’t feel worthless.  I hope that a bit of this has gotten into my work.

Also, in terms of titles, many of the poems in If I Falter at the Gallows hinge on them, gain a great deal of their power and impact from the connection between the title and the poem itself, the conversation between the two. How conscious is your title creation for each piece, and, if you can generalize, how do most of them come about?

I think a title should help readers discover what’s important about the work it belongs to.  For example, there’s nothing in the poem called ‘Widowed’ to clearly indicate that it’s about a man who has been widowed.  But when you read the title again, after having read the poem, it seems somehow fitting.  The trick for the writer is to know when to allow the subconscious part of the mind to lead the way.  When titling a poem, there’s a period of time – sometimes only an instant – when I forget about logic and just allow my mind to reach into its own depths.  Whatever it grabs hold of, I then mold with the conscious part of my mind.  It’s a little like dreaming, and then recalling the dream on waking.

Many of the poems in If I Falter at the Gallows work through / against / in tandem with one another. For example:

‘Against Narrative Poetry’

A black knife, a blue

knife.

 

A red

hand

 

v. this poem

‘In Praise of Narrative Poetry’

Into the bleak

lake on the estate

 

on which no

one resides, falls

 

the quiet

rain.

Is this always purposeful as you write one poem to the next, this conversation between poems, this dialogue that occurs from piece to piece in the book?

It was somewhat intentional with the two poems you mentioned.  I’d written and titled the first one (‘Against Narrative Poetry’), and soon after I had written another poem that needed a title.  I was looking at it and saw that it was forming, or could be seen to be forming, a conversation with the first poem.  So I allowed it to go in that direction.  But I’m wary of making a habit of doing so.  Because as soon as anything becomes habit in the making of art, the art suffers.  Each piece needs to rise out of some place of spontaneity – out of some new fire inside the mind – or else the piece becomes wooden, lifeless; an imitation rather than an original.

But I hope there is a thematic conversation among the pieces.  There is no getting away from the themes you are preoccupied with anyway.  For me, these themes might involve fear, rage, and devotion.

In If I Falter at the Gallows, there are poems like this:

‘Either/Or’

Some of the retreating soldiers

who were retreating because they’d seen other soldiers

retreating

though there had been no order to retreat,

died retreating anyway

 

and some like this:

‘The Great Refusal’

Here is a pebble.

Here is a riverbank on which that pebble resides.

 

Here is the sky.

 

Here is a part of the sky.

Here is a part of a part of the sky.

 

and one like this:

‘Fourteen Hairdryers’

One hairdryer, two hairdryers, three

hairdryers, four hairdryers, five hairdryers,

 

six hairdryers, seven hairdryers, eight

hairdryers, nine hairdryers, ten hairdryers,

 

eleven hairdryers, twelve hairdryers, thirteen

hairdryers, fourteen hairdryers

Can you talk to us about the differences between these types of poems? What is each meaning to do, and how many varieties of poetic approach do you think are present in this book’s pages?

I’m fascinated by the ‘holy fool’ – the figure in some religious traditions whose wisdom is disguised by, or expressed through, a kind of Zen madness.  To me, this ‘holy fool’ is the speaker in ‘Fourteen Hairdryers’.  There’s something funny and scary about this poem.  Or not scary, but serious.  It doesn’t explain itself, and there is nothing for it to explain.  It seems absurd, yet why is it absurd?

Similar to this is ‘The Great Refusal’.  There is something about negation, or refusal, in both poems.  I’m talking about a refusal to elaborate, a willingness to do no more than to observe some mundane truth, and, through that observation, give it a kind of reverence.

In ‘Either/Or’, there’s the same style of observation that’s present in the other two poems, but there is also, I think, a more clearly articulated allusion to philosophical questions.  How should one live?  What kind of choices should one make?  The title refers to the Soren Kierkegaard book that juxtaposes a hedonistic life with an ethical life.  The poem isn’t about those two kinds of lives, exactly, but it invokes something near to them.

I’m not sure how many different poetic approaches are present in the book.  There might be several, or several variations of the same approach.  I think that ultimately the concern of all of the poems is the same concern.  Maybe they are a sort of religious poetry, but their speakers are not in the same head spaces.  It’s difficult not to hear a note of hope in the two poems that end the book (‘A Good Death’ and ‘Light’), and yet the book also contains ‘Blue’, ‘The Depressed Person’ and ‘Golgotha (Charcoal on Paper)’ – poems that seem to deliberately exclude hope. The book might be a little bipolar.

For me, your poetry bears a nice resemblance to the works of Mairead Byrne and Joseph Young among other contemporary Publishing Genius Press writers. What current authors do you take inspiration from, find reinvigoration in, always read?

I’ve read Mairead Byrne and Joseph Young, and I admire them both. I’m a slow reader, but when I find writers I like, I look for more of their work.  Brian Mihok is one writer whose work I hope finds more of an audience.  He’s published stories in journals, but I’m looking forward to when all these stories are published as a book so that more people read them; they’re strange and wonderful.  Ryan Blacketter is another writer I feel the same about.  He often writes about people trying to live their lives in the American West.  His work is a little haunted.

Now that this first book is out, what is next for Edward Mullany? Is there another book in the works, more text on your tumblr, something else entirely?

I’m working on a book about an apocalypse.  It’s different than If I Falter in that If I Falter doesn’t have so central a subject.  What I mean is that it would be difficult for me to say If I Falter is about this or about that.  But this new work is progressing in a different way; I understood I wanted to write the book before I began it.  It has a more clearly defined arc.

If I Falter at the Gallows, released just this month by Publishing Genius Press, continues the evolution of Adam Robinson’s editorial eye, which has slanted recently towards the opening of the page, the whiteness of space as in other recent publications like Michael Bible’s Simple Machines and Chris Toll’s The Disinformation Phase. But as always, with all of the PGP catalog, each new work unlocks a new level, and Edward Mullany’s If I Falter at the Gallows is a must read for anyone invested in this progression, this development, in the furthering of literature. There is something inside of these poems that is quite heart-breaking, quite lovely, and most often tinged with the hilarious or darkly sad / funny – a quality that Mullany is amazing at finding within our words.

Buy this book here. Read more from / about Edward Mullany here.