Figures for an Apocalypse
Publishing Genius Press (2013)
193 pages; $14.95
Reviewed by MH Rowe
If you were going to write an Edward Mullany poem—which is just as likely to be an extremely short story, given Mullany’s interest in miniaturized narratives—you would describe a slightly uneasy situation, such as a woman in a café stirring her tea over and over again. The piece would last only two or three lines, but its title would be something like The Woman Who Drowned Later That Day. Like Lydia Davis, Mullany has a punishing sense of economy. His new collection, Figures for an Apocalypse, can be bleakly funny but also unsettlingly abstract, as in the poem that reads, in its entirety: “The weather was clear.” It’s not exactly an image. It doesn’t show the reader anything particular, or reveal a mood. But the poem’s title is “The Day Painkillers Fell From the Sky.” Mullany’s is a world where fantastical goings-on are dreadfully normal, or blankly horrendous.
Reading a brief poem about medication raining to the earth, we might be tempted to say that Mullany is a master of understatement. Such a label would be distracting, however. For what makes Figures for an Apocalypse such a pleasure to read is Mullany’s sure hand, his patience, and his sense of distant but palpable suffering. As in his previous volume, If I Falter at the Gallows, there is so much drama in his poems, but he often tells the reader only one thing: a single detail, a solitary circumstance, or a stark image. He doesn’t understate at all. The reader knows exactly how horrifying the situation is in “The Enormous Spiders” or how demonic the main character is in the four-line poem, “The Father Who Drove His Family Over a Cliff.”
It isn’t fair to call all the pieces in Figures for an Apocalypse poems, though. Some read more like prose, but all are masterpieces of stray details, patiently outlined with Mullany’s deadpan clarity. The piece called “The Boiling of the Liars,” reads:
First, it was dark. Then the sun began to come up. Then a crowd began to gather. Then a group of naked men and women were led out into a courtyard.
Other writers might be tempted to make lengthy, fabulist hay out of a premise involving the boiling of liars. But Mullany is prose-y and straightforwardly invested in concrete narrative detail. He dwells simply and clearly on the human stakes of this boiling (which could be ritual or punishment): you have to wake the liars up when it’s daytime, then you have to march them naked into the courtyard where the scalding pots await them.
Mullany’s longer pieces (only a page or two long, but obviously narrative) are—if anything—even more gorgeously deadpan than his tiny poems. “Contagion” renders the attraction between parents with sick children as a kind of haunted, helpless desire. It’s almost as scarily intense as “Reunion,” which chronicles the accidental, haltingly flirtatious encounter between a divorced man and woman in a department store, their new spouses hovering around them like anxious satellites. It’s one of the best pieces of flash fiction I’ve ever read.
One of the virtues of Mullany’s poems (and longer flash pieces) is that they have a sense of dramatic consequences but no extended plots, so they don’t feel like premises animated by character conflict. Instead, Mullany’s writing reveals an odd middle ground between premise and narrative, where human pain seems simultaneously realistic and fantastical. In this sense, the apocalypse he describes over and over in his book is the one we experience every day, where the world stands revealed in all its bizarre contortions of logic, love, and helpless hope.
MH Rowe’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spork, Monkeybicycle, DIAGRAM, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ILK, and Jellyfish. He is running around a park in southern Minneapolis.