Figures for an Apocalypse

By Edward Mullany


Publishing Genius
December 2013


Reviewed by Laura Eve Engel


A volume that shares its title with a book of poems by Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Figures for an Apocalypse has a flair for the Biblical. The figures in Edward Mullany's second collection seem timeless and even authorless, as if to say, "What you have in your hands is received prophecy." And the future is a funhouse of famine, spiders, and highways piled so high with knives there aren't enough trucks to take them away. Thus spake Mullany.

In Figures, the pieces—most of them brief enough that the ones used here can be quoted in full—seem set against a black box backdrop; on this stage, one or two items stand in for a vaster setting. The lone tree, the house into which you can't see, the "stairs that went nowhere"—these singular, simple images suggest the whole of the ruined world sans any glorified or giddy depictions of catastrophe, disaster, or face-melting zombie business. Instead, in "The Zoo Without Creatures":

You could walk in
and out

of cages, lie
inside them

with your eyes
closed, and sleep

or pretend to sleep.

The conditions of apocalypse are extreme, but the world on which they are visited—and the spectrum of responses that world possesses—remains mundane. This is a book that treats its subjects with a distant kindness that can only be born of attention, where its subjects are both the apocalypse itself, and the chapter of our humanity it brings to a close.

It's possible to say of Mullany's work that it has perfected the art of turning away, that these pieces create their apocalyptic conditions in monosyllables and then leave off before the real violence begins. Often, they're poised at the moment just before humans take up action—a moment that, in this world, is situated as tragic. In "The Sinner's House":

You came upon it in the forest, having wandered for many days and nights, lost. You said to yourself, "I'm going to knock," and then you knocked.

When the obliquity that characterizes this volume isn't an effect of abruptness, it is instead the result of Mullany drawing coy circles around a macabre center, the gist of which is given a titular nod, as in "The Flogging":

You could pay
to watch. The

more you could
pay, the closer

you would be

But to say this book's power lies exclusively in its willingness to look away would be to focus on that alone, giving short shrift to the activity such looking away leads to. Here, the imagination moves in the direction it is led; the pieces end, and what we're left alone to imagine has been engineered with precision. The language asserts its control long after it's stopped its sound. When we are brought to the brink of a flogging, we see a flogging—likely, the worst one we can imagine.

In his 1978 essay on negative capability, Charles Simic writes that Hans Arp's "bladeless knife from which a handle is missing" and other instances of surreal imagery bring about "the emergence of entities which only by the force of utterance and the upheaval they cause in the imagination and thought acquire existence and even reality." Mullany's postapocalypse has acquired its existence by this very upheaval, though it is easily mistaken for a simple refusal to leave off just before the gory bits. Take "The Cup of Tears," whose full text reads: "'I'll tell you a story,' the mother said to the little boy, who'd asked to hear a story. 'Once there was a road that led to a city that wasn't burned.'" The mother, the son, the assumed bedside at which they might be sharing this moment all give way to the now-burnt cities in the mind, the particulars of which acquire their existence through the mother's slant and eerie utterance. Moments like these are a fine argument for the collaboration of reader and writer as essential to the life of any creative work.

Through dead dogs and assassins and birds that "[bite] fingers // off the corpses of men," Figures for an Apocalypse is in possession of a frightening momentum, and as such it is best read in one sitting. It leaps from snapshot to snapshot of a bleak and burning world, building into a cohesive, page-turning whole in which our experience of each piece is informed and deepened by each piece preceding it, but not in such a way so as to make the crucial turns in any one piece predictable. Instead, where each leaves off we are permitted to enter, and add our fears to what is already there. We become accustomed to the way these pieces move, but not to the way they will, when they stop just short of themselves, move us. Such is the way of a habitual morning walk, or of death—the general shape of what's coming is known, and knowledge does little to take apart the mystery.