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The legacy of Ern Malley

Sixty years on, the Ern Malley affair has become more rather than less mysterious with age. In the past two years alone, the bizarre story of the poet fabricated by two other poets—whose work was subsequently drawn into, and all but consumed by, the vortex of their creation—has been the inspiration for a novel by Peter Carey My Life As A Fake, the latest of many plays Black Swan of Trespass and an opera. If it is in the nature of a myth to become more mysterious with the re-telling, then Ern Malley has acquired that status—the only post-1788 Australian story other than Ned Kelly so to do. Peering into its depths hoping it will tell us who we are and what it’s all about, we only find more confusion, more possibilities. Ern Malley was not the only artistic hoax to occur in modernity, but the others are all but forgotten. Ern persisted because the Australian avant-garde was so small that a hyperkinetic 22-year-old could be the editor of one of the nation’s leading modernist publications, and was so eager to find a great Australian poet, that he could talk in the same letter of both the possibility that the poems were a hoax and also of his certainty that they were works of genius. Malley’s oeuvre, The Darkening Ecliptic, became cemented in the psyche because it moved so quickly from farce to black farce when a prosecution for obscenity was successfully launched.

Ern has established himself in global poetry culture more firmly than his creators could possibly have imagined—even allowing for their gradual and rueful acceptance that he had come to overshadow them. His position has benefited from the successive republication of the poems, their inclusion in Tranter and Mead’s The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, Sidney Nolan’s statement that he never would have conceived of the Ned Kelly series without Malley’s juxtaposition of European surrealist motifs with an Australian landscape, and a kind word from John Ashbery—the leading exponent of postmodern discontinuous poetry in the English language today.

Like most great literature, the poems add resonance to the  places they describe: the domed reading room of the State Library where Ern would go to read; and the quiet de Chiriquesque streets of South Melbourne, where his sister Ethel says he spent his final days in Melbourne. ‘Princess you lived in Princess street, where the urchins pick their noses in the sun/with the left hand’, he writes in ‘Perspective Lovesong’. Malley roamed the night streets, bug-eyed and strung-out from the hyperthyroid condition alleged to be slowly killing him. At the same time Albert Tucker was wandering the same streets, churning with rage and fear, and visions of monstrous women. So too was US Army private Eddie Leonski, the ‘brown-out strangler’—alcoholic, psychotic, he strangled three women because, he said, he was trying to steal ‘their voice’.

It is easy, almost irresistible to participate in the invention of Malley, the fleshing out of someone’s imaginary creature.

Yet eventually one is drawn back to the mystery of his creators. And especially, in recent years, to a sense that the relationship between them was not symmetrical. More and more it becomes clear that the answer to the riddle of Ern Malley is not to be found in Harold Stewart but in
James McAuley—in his frustrations, his fears, and the terrible splitting of his soul.

Malley was presented by McAuley and Stewart as a means to prove a point about modernist poetry. Yet it seems clear that Malley is borne not merely of a spirit of prank, but primarily of anger—not just at the alleged charlatanism of the ‘apocalyptics’ school of modern verse, but also in response to McAuley’s frustration with the limits of his talents. Famously the first poem in the Ecliptic, ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1945’, is one that McAuley had written when he was attempting to become a modernist poet in the European manner. It expresses the greatest fear of any such acolyte—what Harold Bloom would come to call ‘the anxiety of influence’—the fear that the style of earlier writers threatens to circumscribe one’s own imagination.

I had read in books that art was not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters

The Malley poems are an attempt to exorcise a fear of poetic failure. McAuley, a scholarship boy, an energetic, ambitious, thrusting alpha male, had been deemed most likely to succeed by the circle of professional bohemian failures he had hung around with in pre-war Sydney. Stewart was reticent and humorous, a man who had conceded defeat early in life. In the crazy intelligence Directorate where the poems were conceived (and celebrated as an experiment in psychological warfare), McAuley was an officer and Stewart a librarian with the rank of corporal. Prior to enlistment McAuley had suffered reverses in his academic career, ending up as a private tutor, and his early brilliance was, by his own lights, fading badly. In this period the nightmares that had plagued him all his life became worse—he was sleepwalking, smashing windows and even jumping out of them. This abated somewhat during the Malley period, only to return with such force afterwards that his friends were convinced that suicide was only a matter of time. Creating another self—Malley—into which all the badness and chaos could be poured, particularly that of a poetic nature, took the pressure off. When Ern was exposed as a hoax and started to fade as a separate persona, the badness returned in full force. What McAuley came to regard as a literal case of demonic possession was only assuaged when he entered the church.
One key to this is the (in part) striking poem ‘Culture As Exhibit’. In part it is a found object, the first lines taken from a manual of malaria prevention that McAuley was reading

Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding grounds ...

The verse has always been taken as an example of how little McAuley and Stewart seemed to understand what they had done, for they always poured scorn on the idea that verse taken from such a source has any merit. Yet it’s clear that not only does the passage have a rhythmic punch (magnified by McAuley’s line division of it) but that the imagery of stagnancy and decay is immediately powerful. Malley warns:

now have I found you my Anopheles
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)

A clue to Max Harris that the whole thing is a hoax—he is being stung. But if Harris is being stung that makes McAuley the mosquito—even though he says he has found ‘my anopheles’—his own mosquito. McAuley is the mosquito—the parasite, living off the blood of others—but he has also been stung by the mosquito, that is, by himself. He is living off himself, drawing away his own energy.

This is the key poem in explaining McAuley’s own relationship to Malley, for ‘Ern Malley’ is not only echoed by the word ‘malaria’ (Mal-ey-ria), a disease carried by parasites from stagnant conditions, but is also un mal air, a ‘bad tune’ (McAuley, it should be remembered, had majored in French and German literature). Ern Malley—un mal air, or une malle aire—is also a bad odour, an ill wind or a bad feeling. It is bad poetry as disease (or dis-ease), and McAuley fears that he is the carrier of it—the anopheles. Stewart’s contribution to this poem comes in here, with the line ‘culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun’—a snippet from one of his letters. After this the poem loses its tension and becomes a silly, if fluent, riff.
McAuley’s disease is that he cannot feel, that he is parasitically living off the dreams of others. Much has been made of the idea of the ‘black swan’ as a symbol of antipodean alienness—but it could also be said that a black swan is a shadow of a white swan, that what is distinctively antipodean is not even embodied, but a mere effect. Malley it could be said is all these things—not only Mallarme (the master symbolist poet McAuley had tried to be) without the ‘ame’—soul—but also McAuley with the ‘call’, the vocation, or even without the ‘core’.

Is it worth deconstructing the name and these verses so deeply in pursuit of its authors? I think so, because the Malley poems were composed under conditions of great psychological pressure. McAuley and Stewart were both smart enough to know how far short they fell of great poetry, and were confronting a gradual fading of youthful promise. Harris, at the time, was not. His eager self-boosterism must have seemed like a local version of other boosters whose optimism and judgement McAuley despised—the English all-rounder Herbert Read in particular, whom McAuley had hoped would be drawn into discrediting himself by supporting Malley’s candidacy for genius.

Where did that anger come from? That sense of doom? In a secular form, McAuley’s symptoms are not those of demonic possession, but of what has come to be known as borderline personality disorder—a loosening of the psyche that does not express itself in actual psychosis, but which leaves the sufferer with difficulty telling inside from outside of themselves—distinguishing emotional reactions from external phenomena. Manic depressive cycling, splitting of self, promiscuity, violent nightmares, and a certain dashing, cruel, wild energy are characteristic of the condition, and McAuley had all that, in spades. 
The crucial point about borderline personality disorder is that it is overwhelmingly associated with one thing—childhood sexual abuse. And that might make us wonder about the origin of McAuley’s recurring dream—that of a man in a stovepipe hat, casting his shadow on the wall. It is this figure that came to McAuley in nightmares, and had him up and smashing windows in his sleep—an attempt presumably to escape. Is it a child’s view of a man in a hat frozen in the psyche? A trace of some experience that laid the ground for McAuley’s torments? He himself thought that he was only saved from self-harm by a total and mystical conversion to Roman Catholicism in New Guinea (where he also contracted malaria).

Consciously or otherwise the move was a trade-off, for it ended McAuley as an interesting poet for some time. His next volume was one of pious religious devotion, and he then became bogged down in the composition of Captain Quiros, an extended theological exploration, whose only interest for most today lies in its rollicking, almost Errol Flynn-ish rendition of discovery and conquest. He had made a deal with God—he would give up the psychic freedom that allowed real modern poetry to be composed, in exchange for a guarantee of his life and sanity. It was only when—in his last decade—even this protection wore away and he was left face to face with a pure despair that he succeeded in writing a handful of poems that touch near greatness. Alcoholism, adultery and the paranoid political style of cold warriordom seem to have been the mechanisms by which he maintained such psychological equilibrium as was possible.

Much of this was predicted by Stewart, who cautioned him against wading into the cesspit of worldly politics, and became wearied of his proselytising. The two drifted apart. While McAuley could function in the world of professional teaching and Cold War intrigue, Stewart’s bohemian diffidence saw him fall for a long time until the synthesising doctrines of Rene Guenon’s ‘Traditionalist’ movement—a basic commitment to eastern religion as the surviving example of the genuine religious impulse—and relocation in Japan gave him ground. Paradoxically, he became the more famous poet. His two collections of haiku translations sold tens of thousand of copies in the 1950s and 60s, principally in the US, and were a major factor in the form becoming popular in the West. Yet even this triumph underscores the tragically silly nature of Stewart’s life—for the translations, done in heroic
couplets, look as kitsch as tiki art today.

Stewart was flippant about being a victim of the curse of Ern Malley, but it seems to have had a more fundamental effect than he admits. As confirmedly homosexual as McAuley was heterosexual (at least in McAuley’s post-adolescence), Stewart was clearly in love with his collaborator. The Malley poems functioned as kind of rapid marriage and family life, and Stewart refers not once, but three times, to Ern as his and McAuley’s ‘baby’. Like a literary wife of the period Stewart had typed the manuscript, done the bulk of the work inventing and giving voice to Ethel, and providing, it seems, much of the lightness and humour within the Malley poems.

Indeed I suspect the intensity of their relationship can perhaps be found recorded elsewhere—in ‘Because’, a poem usually attributed to McAuley.
My father and mother never quarrelled
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald
Rather than like the eagle or the dove
I never saw them casually touch ...

Can this record of a thwarted marriage—universally seen as McAuley’s finest work—be read not as a work of McAuley, but as the last known verse of Ern Malley himself? Is it his lament for his stillborn nature, as a product of a love that could not be consummated? The poem speaks of a father who has dammed up all his spontaneous loving feeling out of fear of where it might take him. Were these McAuley’s feelings, and his awareness of Stewart’s feelings—feelings he did not want to reciprocate in full. Was he conscious of Stewart’s hurt and rejection?  We will never know. The question itself is unanswerable, even unposable. There is only the mystery that deepens, and the awareness that these things, once started, start a rip in the fabric of life that rapidly goes beyond any possibility of control. Or, as the poet has said, in lines that I suspect many Malleyists have had float through their head at times of great trial

I have been bitter with you my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow
Was already on his face “the emotions are not skilled workers”.
—‘Colloquy With John Keats’
Happy sixtieth, Ern. There will no doubt be many more.    

Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena magazine.



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