The poems in Figures for an Apocalypse come from a place of honest insanity. I have met Mullany once before, and he seemed like a normal guy. Quiet, yet affable. Beautiful wife. A few books under his belt already. But the insane are like that sometimes.
This collection could very easily be labeled as “alt-lit” due to its style and tone. The poems are written under the purest sense of minimalism imaginable. At first, they count a bit heavily on the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, the purpose of the words. But after a while the poems blend together and the story builds into a complex, meaningful, yet obvious beauty, like a monk shaving sand into a mandala.
It was hard to read something else after this. It felt like I had taken the wrong dosage of a serious prescription drug. Each time I set it down, it was hard to sense how long my mind would be stuck in Mullany’s apocalypse. I think this was his intention, to cause his reader to walk away alive but feeling like death himself. But there is a sort of event horizon to this book, a point at which the reader is helpless to escape it, but also a point before the horizon, where the reader must carry himself through first.
The unfamiliar reader might abandon Figures without experiencing what I’m describing here. This is a common problem of alt-lit, but I think it’s surmountable here. After all, the subject matter here is very serious–death and the human condition–and the epigraphs from Revelations keep the book academic. The only thing the reader must overcome is the writing style, the stark, stark minimalism of each poem. And if the reader sticks with it long enough, she’ll see how necessary it is. The medium is the message, and the message is calm and insane.
The other poems tend to support each other. One of my favorite poems in the book is “The Birthmarks,” where Mullany writes, “One day, every child // born was born / with the same one.” If you encounter this poem during a typical session of Figures reading, it’s absolutely terrifying, like the man on television in suit and tie who says “you are forgiven” every few minutes in Mullany’s, “The Absolution.”
I’d almost finished the book when I came across that last poem, and that’s when I set it down to watch Mizzou play in the Cotton Bowl. It was sitting on the coffee table in front of me, and I half-waited for one of the announcers to absolve. I left to pee during half-time and came back to my father thumbing through Figures, as if he was trying to surmise as quickly as possible just what the hell this book was, and why it was on the coffee table.
I asked him what he was looking for and he said while laughing, “a good poem!” I showed him “The Birthmarks” and asked him what he thought. He read it too quickly before shaking his head. I asked him for a reaction. “It doesn’t do anything for me.” He asked me why I was reading it. “I’m reading it for fun, but I think I’m going to review it too.”
“You’re going to review it?” he asked me. I said yes. “Well I got a review for you, it sucks!” I kind of expected this reaction from him, but it was still strange to hear him say it. My dad is pretty out of touch with trends, as most dads are, but I don’t really think of Figures as a trendy piece.
Alt-lit has the problem of being so culturally relevant that it’s obscure. In her review of Noah Cicero’s Best Behavior, Rebecca Haze describes the book fondly because it is the antithesis of a classic, “a couple of days in the life, making it a more honest and useful cultural artifact.” What she means by artifact is that the book is like a time capsule, it describes what life is like really for the twenty-something white guy in 2012.
But literature doesn’t need any preservatives, it doesn’t have to strive to be an artifact. That’s what makes Figures readable by those outside of the scene. It is an artifact for something we all care about, the end of the world. And with the entire zeitgeist obsessed with zombies and apocalypses, it is nice to see a work of literature approach the subject seriously and without slipping into the cliche, or worse, the campy.
No, Figures is timeless. These images of a girl carrying her dead dog down the street, rabbits taking over the streets, the tolling of bells during a famine… These are believable, and as the title suggests, they are just as much figures for an apocalypse as the four horsemen or the atomic bomb.
Because the world’s end can happen everywhere, and I think Mullany knows that. If you give the poems time, if you approach it with purpose and an open heart, you will feel the same loss I felt every time I set it down. You look at the cover as it lies on the coffee table and it haunts you. The leafless tree and flock of crows, these things exist in the world already. In fact, you’ve seen them often.
Andrew Squitiro is an MFA student at Old Dominion University.