Ern Malley: Doppelgänger in the Desert

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

Here is the curious (curioser and curioser) case of Ern Malley, an entirely fictional poet, invented in 1943 to expose what the perpetrators thought of as Modernism’s foolishness. James McAuley and Harold Stewart spent an afternoon, apparently, putting together assimilations of quotations and extracts from policy documents about the breeding of mosquitoes, and other sources. Their friend, the poet A. D. Hope watched, at a distance, over these events. McAuley and Stewart created a poet, Malley, a garage mechanic who had unfortunately succumbed to Graves’ disease at exactly the same age as Keats, leaving behind him a manuscript, carefully worn to look like the real thing. Malley’s ‘sister’ Ethel sent the manuscript of The Darkening Ecliptic to Max Harris, editor of the avant-garde literary magazine Angry Penguins, who published the work enthusiastically. (Angry Penguins comes from a Harris poem: ‘as drunks, the angry penguins of the night’.) Then followed the revelation of the hoax, much to the chagrin of Harris. Subsequent charges of publishing an indecent work added to the surreal aura surrounding this cause célèbre in Australian literary history.

Australia certainly has a lot of desert to contend with, but there can be deserts in the mind too, and the Ern Malley affair, as it has come to be known, does show a certain propensity for literary politicking and obstructionism that has not been without subsequent issue. It might be argued that the Malley affair gives a foretaste of the navel-gazing propensities of the poetry world which the general public have subsequently given the cold shoulder. The free exchange of ideas, generally regarded as the sine qua non of intellectual discourse, has sometimes had a hard time of it in Australia. Even now, one is likely to encounter violent squalls that would frighten the birds from the sky, or provide satirists with fruitful fodder. Fortunately, the Internet demolished all the old redoubts and, at last, there now really is a free exchange of ideas. All the same, I don’t think Australian culture is nearly as well known as it ought to be, though some recent successes of the film industry and the opening of the Aboriginal art component of the Branly museum in Paris show positive moves forward.

One would have thought the Ern Malley character and his literary works might have died off subsequent to the revelations of the hoax, but such has not been the case. There is something in the character of Malley, some aspect of the Australian temperament, which still appeals to writers, painters and composers. The artists Sidney Nolan and Garry Shead both produced a series of works based on Malley. There has been an Ern Malley jazz suite. Peter Carey wrote a novel that used the Malley story as a template—My Life As A Fake. After all, the mechanic who died so young, mirrors many a real tragedy—Henry Lawson’s alcoholism, Francis Webb’s struggles with schizophrenia, Brett Whiteley’s drug overdose in a Thirroul motel room. These were artists who had achieved important art. They had been recognised. Yet their deaths raised the lingering question—did art really matter in the wide, brown land? Was seriousness possible in a country that took a pride on kicking the stuffing out of anyone who took themselves seriously enough to take art seriously? Sidney Nolan’s brutal Malley portrait would seem to suggest a certain self-loathing, or hopelessness. It seemed there was always going to be the doppelgänger waiting in the desert to pull the mat from under artistic pretensions, either the artist’s lesser self, doubting the art made, or the less tangible antagonism, or indifference, of critic, cultural commissar and public. What better symbol of this negativity than the Ern Malley affair with its amalgam of farce and hostility, creativity and cultural atavism.

The Malley poetry is mixed in quality, but there is one poem that strikes at the root of the Australian experience: ‘Durer: Innsbruck, 1495’.

                      I had often, cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
                      Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
                      As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
                      And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
                      All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters—
                      Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
                      Now I find that once more I have shrunk
                      To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
                      I had read in books that art is 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.

As has been commented by Herbert Read and others, this is the real thing. The hoax poem becomes, even against its makers best intentions, a serious work of art. How often in Australia has the satirical shorn off into melancholy, savagery and the dark, bitter, sunburnt tragic mask. The harpy from Moonee Ponds hell with a chainsaw in her mouth, Dame Edna Everage (average, get it), Barry Humphries’ vitriolic creation, is just one fictional character you feel fictional Ern could have had earnest communications with. One problem: Ern ‘died’ before Dame Edna was ‘born’. Still, they could have  metaphysical communications, like Laura Trevelyan and Voss in Voss. How often has the Australian artist felt the sting in the tail of ‘I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters’. Dame Edna intrudes with her gladioli and mocking sideswipes. Art intrudes with its unwanted psychological complexities, its unruly passions, its refusal to stick to any ordained historical script.

In retrospect it seems far-fetched to think that such a hoax could have held back Modernism’s tempests in Australia. Art will out and have its say, whatever the oppositions involved. That is simply the nature of art. The Australian cultural melting pot was never going to be constrained by Malley-type hijinks, and Australian culture bifurcated in the decades following on from the nineteen-forties with some astonishing efflorescences, the diverse styles of Aboriginal art being just one example. Poets of every stripe crossed the continent, perhaps a little like the endangered (now extinct) Thylacine, desperate for an audience and therefore sometimes likely to go troppo and savage one another when audiences, or contracts, were in the offing.

Max Harris is a much more important figure than he has been given credit for in Australian literary and cultural history. Not only was he the person on whom the whole Malley fracas descended. Harris was only in his early twenties when he made his editorial decision to publish the Malley poems. Youth is not always wasted on the young, and here youth achieved, with exuberance and delight, the rarest publishing gesture—courage to believe in something new. Here the word became deed. Then followed the vituperation and philistinism. Harris bore with it and kept on speaking up for Australian contemporary modernism before many of us had seen the light of day, encouraging other artists to go forth and multiply. Along with John and Sunday Reed, Harris helped stimulate ‘the vegetative eye’ (a Harris novel scorned by Hope), an eye rinsed clean in the crashing surf and brilliant light of Australian landscape and idiom.

The last words in the suite of sixteen poems that comprise the Ern Malley legacy are ‘Beyond is anything.’ This was meant, I guess, as a last mordant commentary by the originators of the hoax on the perceived hopelessness of the Modernist cause. Well, Modernism has had its day, as have so many other ‘isms’. But art continues to prosper in the unlikeliest places, but not inexplicably, since art is essential to the human. Such anarchic splendour in the mallee scrub! ‘Beyond is anything.’ And if this were to turn out to be true . . .

Here is my fantasy poem in which Max Harris, poet, critic, publisher, bookseller and cultural provocateur, marries an anagram of Ern Malley. In fact, Harris married Yvonne Hutton. They had a daughter, Samela. ‘Brilliant deserts as the prophets come’ is taken from A. D. Hope’s ‘Australia’: ‘Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come, // Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare / Springs in that waste.’ The last line of the Malley Dürer poem is referenced in line seventeen.


   Homage To Rema Nelly
               I.M. Max Harris

Glorious niece of language’s funambulist,
Side-stepping safe, orders skewiff,
Where seem is dream, and what’s invented lives.
Your uncle, nuncle, major poemquake shifted
Alphabets to greetings, greenings, ghosts
Of Paris, absinthe visions spread
Over Dali sunsets, time stretched, drowned under.

You toyed with our sedate revisions written,
Our daubs and music stillborn at first hearing,
Your lightning dances trampling on our thighs
Which we had heaved to blurt or cauterise.
Temptress under arcades of forgetting,
We honour what you gathered, rosy splinters
Stuck in shards, then pushed through sunburnt blisters.

To maximum, dear Max, chosen vessel
Of the hope to renovate, renew,
You trespassed on the alien waters flooding
Round our dull collectives and mute souls.
Max, you married Rema, and your children
Now are found in stranger corners trudging
Brilliant deserts as the prophets come.

‘If it’s unfelt it’s not worth buying’,
Rema says to Max, and art should be well-felt,
Felt up to rainbow prisms, down echidna spikes
Roughing the threatening ghost gums of the night.
Here’s to Max and Rema! May they live
Beyond these present realms of dire delight
To help us make the penguins angry with creative might.

Written 2003