If I Falter at the Gallows, poems by Edward Mullany. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2011.
The first thing that stands out about Mullany’s poems is that they tend to be very short and spare, never longer than a page, rarely as long as half a page, with similarly short lines. There are exceptions, of course; he’s included a handful of prose poems. These brief poems tend to be scenes that also tend to be somewhat inexplicable at first glance, though they resonate emotionally. The opening poem, “Silence in the Milky Way,” for example, has a title longer than any of its lines. The poem includes 11 words, describing a scene of a dissonant marriage. What does this have to do with the Milky Way? It requires some thought. I believe Mullany, at times, isn’t trying to spell out obvious hit-you-over-the-head messages; he’s often implying emotional meaning. This theme of being at odds, with a world, with others, etc., is prevalent throughout the collection. And the approach Mullany has – of mostly brief depictions of scenes – instantly differentiates his poems from the bulk of poetry out there, not only as they appear on the page, but as a read. Despite their brevity, these are difficult poems to skim; they demand attention simply because Mullany’s writing is quite powerful and because the scenes resonate.
Another thing that stands out is Mullany’s subject matter. I was quite surprised, very early on in the collection, to read descriptions of farming, fatherhood: nary a poem about 20-somethings hanging out at coffee shops or complaining about how hard their lives are now that they have to pay their own bills. (YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!!!!). Mullany is diving for the center of things. Meaningful things.
Normally, I would quote various poems to stress these points, but I’d like to do something a little different and quote some of the lines that really stand out to me from poems I'll select ramdomly. From, “On the Movement of Light Through the Universe”:
fog of dawn lifts, and a farmer
wearing boots his own
father wore appears with his
cows on the next hill.
I’m biased, having worn my father’s boots, so to speak. But it's evident how Mullany's approach is almost haiku-like. Here’s a line from, “The Abolition Man”:
Where we live, there is more gray
The bathtub overflows.
The bathtub sprouts legs, and leaves
the house, and returns at night, drunk.
Mullany is equally comfortable with surreal imagery and realistic imagery. Here’s a link to the very nice “American Gothic.”
How about (the entire poem) "Dishes,"
When I asked my mother what fear
and trembling was, she stopped
what she was doing, and looked at me
funny. I was a high
school sophomore, and she was forty-six.
I could really go on quoting lines, or whole poems, because I haven't even scratched the surface of this collection. What gives poems like "Dishes" their power is Mullany's restraint. He manages to stress the emotional undercurrent of the situation without actually commenting on it. Jo McDougall is a natural comparison, though Mullany lacks the Southern angle. This is one of the few books I've read in the past year that I can envision myself returning to, which is the highest compliment I can pay it.