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The legacy of Ern Malley

  • 31 May 2006

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