Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Darkening Ecliptic

Ern Malley was an Australian poet and auto-mechanic, insurance salesman and watch repairman. He was born in Liverpool in 1918 and died in obscurity in Sydney in 1943, at the age of 25.

Ern Malley, by Sidney Nolan

Like Lautreamont, his work was only discovered posthumously, but when it was, it caused a sensation. He appeared, almost uniquely among his peers, to have internalised the Surrealist cut-and paste techniques later made famous in English by William Burroughs et al, lifting different sources out of context and forging them together into verse, and in doing so to have opened himself up to a strange sort of literary free association.

Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495
I had often, cowled in the slumberous 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 Dürer 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.

After refusing medical treatment for Graves disease, and becoming increasingly fractious and difficult to those around him, he became seriously ill and died, leaving a folder of just 12 poems, entitled 'The Darkening Ecliptic', which his sister found and passed on to an Australian poetry periodical called Angry Penguins. In a state of excitement, they devoted a whole issue to the newly discovered poet.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks

Among the water-lillies
A splash – white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.
(from Night Piece)

The only problem was, Ern Malley was not real. He'd been made up by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two poets who felt the Modernist avant-garde was a fraud and wanted to prove that any old rubbish would pass muster, as long as it was aggressively nonsensical. They semi-randomly cut together elements of the collected plays of Shakespeare, The Concise Oxford Dictionary and a dictionary of quotations to create the Malley poems, which were designed to be total gibberish, without any literary merit. And they manufactured a biography for him, including a sister called Ethel who had discovered the poems among his papers. The prank succeeded in making the critics look like fools, and turned Australian poetry away from Modernist experimentation for decades.

And yet, even after his exposure as a fraud, Malley has lived on. Robert Hughes and John Ashberry have both expressed admiration for his poetry. 'The Darkening Ecliptic' has remained enduringly popular, unlike the real poetry of McAuley and Stewart, which is largely forgotten. In the end, rather nightmarishly, Malley eclipsed his creators, having the last laugh despite being a figment of the imagination.

1 comment:

dennis said...

Alasdair- thanks for this Frankenstein story with a literary bent! It got away from them, it did. A well timed Halloween musing for us here in the States. And we currently have a "Frankenstorm" cyclone engulfing the eastern third of the continent to provide the backdrop...