I had the great pleasure to read Mullany’s book of poems published by Publishing Genius Press, as well as discuss his book and life in general with him. Below is our conversation.
Bomer: I just so happened to read your book of poetry, If I Falter at The Gallows, while reading Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes. Because of this coincidence, these two books coinciding with each other, I thought a lot about context, and how context affects our reading of texts. Although I start our discussion with talking about two books as contextually affecting each other, I’m interested in context in a broader scope. As a small child, my father played Satie’s Gymnopédies on a daily basis. And now, my son is playing them. So when he plays them, I think of my father, who died a year ago, and I’m filled with sadness. And frankly, those pieces always made me sad—they are sad songs. So in reading your poems, although there are a great many (seventy-nine, to be exact) I felt they were infused with a sort of mourning, or as Barthes prefers to say, “Don’t say mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.” Your title refers to death, death by hanging. It refers also to “faltering” at the place of hanging. The gorgeous cover—which you illustrated—shows, among other things, a man on his knees, appearing to be praying. So death and prayer—which at the time of death means, to me, fear, desperation, suffering, and of course, a call to faith—are all evident before even opening the book.
Mullany: The cover art might suggest a way of dealing with suffering. I say “might” because, I agree—I don’t think it’s clear whether the man on his knees is praying out of conviction or desperation. He’s an ambiguous figure in that the viewer can only know him through his silhouette. He evokes, as you say, “fear” and “faith” in equal degrees. I hope this evocation extends to the context of the book itself.
I think this means that the book was a way for me to explore a fundamental part of human experience. The imminence of death is my context. Maybe it exists as a shadow out of which I write.
Describing her fiction, Flannery O’Connor once said, “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.” I think this too explains something about my concerns. I’m interested in what violence can reveal about the soul in relation to eternity.
Bomer: Some of your poems quote the bible, or are titled in ways that harks back toward Christianity: “Ode to the Holy Spirit,” “The Streets of Jerusalem,” “The Jesus Formula,” “The Entombment of Christ,” to name a few, and, of course, “Golgotha,” which appears to be, according to the acknowledgments, a quote from the “The Holy Bible.” What is your relationship to Christianity, and how does it—when it does—or does it always?—affect your poetry?
Mullany: I’m Catholic, so my relationship to Christianity is consequential.
If I was to say that Catholicism means one thing to me as a person, and another thing to me as an artist, I think I would be mistaken, though it isn’t easy for me to explain why. My art is often aberrant and unorthodox, but it is never (I hope) heretical. Art can be a weird synthesis of personality, technique, and belief.
When I was young, and my family was still living in Australia, my brother and I were enrolled in a Jesuit grammar school. At the top of every page of every notebook, whenever we began our class-work, we were trained to write A.M.D.G., which is an abbreviation of “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” which is Latin for “For the Greater Glory of God.” This is the motto of the Society of Jesus (the Catholic religious order); and the idea behind it is that any work that is not evil, even one that is normally considered insignificant, can be spiritually meritorious if it is performed with a certain attitude of the soul. I mention this now because I think it reveals a “broadness” in Catholic thought, even if it also suggests the development of faith via rote or repetition. Its willingness to find grace in mundane situations mirrors the willingness of art to consider anything as a subject.
Does my relationship to Christianity affect my poetry? Yes, probably always, and maybe to a greater degree than anything else does.
Bomer: I felt in reading this collection that titles play a very important part, if not are a part, of your poems. As a fiction writer, titles have a much smaller, although still important, place. But in your book, the title contextualizes the entire poem with great regularity. One example is “The Bleeding Man,” which is one of your poems that are “prose poems,” for lack of a better term. The poem is a paragraph that narrates a man walking into an office, and it’s told in the first person, but others see him as well. Nowhere in the body of the poem does it mention he is bleeding. That is only mentioned in the title, but the entire poem is about that fact. I feel that your poems often work in this manner, that the title contextualizes the poem, or even tells us how to read the poem. Would you explain how or why your poems function this way, why you write them this way?
Mullany: I think the writer whose titles I first noticed in terms of an aesthetic was Hemingway. He’d do this thing where the title wouldn’t necessarily be in the story, but of the story. In “The Battler,” for instance, from In Our Time, you can’t be certain who the battler is. Is it Nick Adams, the story’s main character? Or is it Ad Francis, the battered old boxer Nick encounters at the campfire in the woods? Or is it Bugs, Ad’s kindly companion, a black man living on the fringes of American society? All three characters are battlers in their own right. And yet the word “battler” is never mentioned in the story. The story assumes different shades of meaning depending on which character the reader assigns the title to.
In “The Bleeding Man,” meaning is distributed in a similar way. Literally, the title applies to the man the narrator is describing. But it might also apply to the narrator himself insofar as his hyper-awareness resembles a kind of psychic bleeding. By omitting any description of blood, the narrative draws attention to other aspects of itself, like the curiously long sentence to which the narrator gives voice. I think one could even say that the piece is about mania, about the insanity brought on by ordinary existence. The bleeding, then, would not be literal so much as felt. Or it would be a literal manifestation of a spiritual condition.
Bomer: Your book has two parts, as in Part 1 and Part 2. I read the first part and most of the second part in the order they are put in this collection. Toward the end of Part 2, I skipped to the end and read the last few poems in backward order. That said, I feel the order, the placement, of these poems are very important to the experience of reading the book. Many of these poems appeared alone in journals, and for some reason I find that strange, largely because I read it so much as a “collection,” as a book of poems that were, if not written (and most likely not written) in an order, then very much placed in a very specific order. The order, one poem following another, and on and on, seems particularly important in this book. In that way, and even more so, your poetry collection reminds me so much of good story collections. There is always a reason why each story is where it is, and in your collection, each poem is exactly where it should be. Would you elaborate on the construction of your book as a collection, and how you know when to place one poem after or before another?
Mullany: Adam Robinson, my publisher, helped me with this. My main concern was that the book vary in tone, so that the reader wouldn’t be overwhelmed by stretches of somber pieces, or just a sequence of funny pieces. I didn’t want to allow readers to be able to predict what sort of poem they would read next. I wanted the poems, as much as possible, to always catch the reader off guard. So I looked at the poems and tried to read them as I thought a reader might. I was conscious of their cumulative effect.
I did want the collection to end on a particular note. The last two poems, “A Good Death” and “Light,” involve speakers who are less agonized, who seem to have endured where others seem to have not.
Bomer: I feel many of your poems are left to open interpretations while others are more straightforward in meaning. This hints back to my previous question, in that there seems to be a balancing act between narrative and non-narrative poetry, as you, in one of your many moments of humor, discuss in your two poems, “Against Narrative Poetry” and “In Praise of Narrative Poetry.” I gather you are ambivalent about taking sides on this issue? Sometimes I wonder if you know more than you want to share in your poems, that you want to leave things open. This is a wonderful technique for the most part, one that I use on occasion purposefully, and at other times less intentionally, in short stories (I find it less useful in novel writing). For instance, in your title poem, “If I Falter At The Gallows,” your poem describes what I think of as a scene of the “I” narrator of the title, seeing:
woman with a dog whose name I once
knew but can’t
I feel mostly grounded in the scene, but feel unclear who is faltering. The hangman? The man to be hanged? Then there is this beauty of memory in the way that it is lost: “whose name I once/ knew but can’t remember.” Obviously the poem can be taken for what it is, but it also opens up all sorts of possibility. What was his relationship to this dog, who he thinks of more than the woman? Is this a comfort, a distraction, from either impending death or the forthcoming administering of it?
Mullany: That question—“is this a comfort?”—I think is central to the poem. You can’t be sure what the answer is. To the speaker, the sight of the woman and the dog could be a comfort, but it could just as easily be the opposite of a comfort. The construction of the poem is too factual, too absent of tone, or sentiment, to figure out an answer. But that doesn’t mean the reader can’t conjecture. As you do, I think, the reader wants to impart some feeling of his or her own onto the speaker’s situation. And the placing of the title encourages this conjecture.
I’m glad you feel what you do about this poem. I want to create a space that the reader cannot resolve, or get out of. This is what’s most interesting to me about art. I don’t think an artist’s intention should be to solve any problems, but to articulate them with a precision that is both alluring and unsettling.
Bomer: Why death? The impending death of your title? The many poems dealing with death? As I mention in my first question, I think our reading and our writing is always within a specific context. And as I mentioned, I read your book alongside Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, which is exclusively about the impact of his mother’s death (and what an impact it is). I also read both of these books around the year anniversary of my father’s death, so maybe I, the reader, am projecting my context into your work. That would be a normal thing to do, as a reader. And yet I do wonder how you feel death influenced your book, one in particular, more than one, or just the concept of death.
Mullany: I guess death is something I’m preoccupied with. It makes me sad that people have to die, that I will have to die. I’m afraid of it. I wouldn’t want to keep growing old as a human being, and never die, but I believe in eternity, so I’m afraid of what will happen to my soul as a consequence of the death of my human body. I also care about the souls of people I love, and, in my better moments, about the souls of people I do not love. I believe in a final judgment, though I know my grasp of it can only be feeble, and that divine mercy is capable of mitigating that judgment.
Maybe I’m not so much interested in death itself, but rather in death as it relates to free will; what a person chooses to do in life. What they do and fail to do.