Text and Paratext: Ern Malley and the Function of the Author

By | 1 December 2010

And so we come to the poems themselves. In all the debate about tradition versus experiment, authorial intent versus the language of the text, in the historical baggage of the hoax itself, the poems tend to get lost. As the poet and critic Paul Kane has observed, ‘this hoax, like innumerable others, would have faded into obscurity long ago if it were not for some more durable quality’ and surely one reason for this is ‘the poems themselves; they are a far more genuine achievement than many are still willing to allow, and they call forth or create a sensibility that is complex, convincing, even compelling.’1 ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’ is a fine example of this. For all McAuley’s insistence that the poem is not ‘credible’, there is in fact an elegiac and anxious sensibility sustaining the poem:

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. (DE, 243)

Here the narrator finds himself belated and unoriginal, a ‘robber of dead men’s dream’, repeating only what has come before, ‘the vision of others’. Barthes’ notion that there is ‘no such thing as literary originality’ echoes very strongly here, ‘every word, phrase or segment is a reworking of other writings which precede or surround the individual work.’2

In ‘Perspective Lovesong’ we can again see this elegiac impulse imposing itself:

It was a night when the planets
Were wreathed in dying garlands.
It seemed we had substituted
The abattoirs for the guillotine.
I shall not forget how you invented
Then, the conventions of faithfulness. (DE, 254)

Indeed, this poem in particular illustrates how the hoaxers were losing control of their invention, for until the fourth stanza of the poem McAuley and Stewart had essentially written a relatively conventional love lyric. In that fourth stanza the poets have to intervene, have to intrude with obviously dissonant lines:

Princess, you lived in Princess St.,
Where the urchins pick their nose in the sun
With the left hand. (DE, 254)

Without the urchins ‘who pick their nose in the sun / With the left hand’ the poem ‘works’, it ‘means’ in a way the hoaxers cannot allow. Even with this intervention the poem moves toward its elegiac conclusion:

You thought
That paying the price would give you admission
To the sad autumn of my Valhalla.
But I too, invented faithfulness. (DE, 254)

‘Petit Testament’, the final poem in The Darkening Ecliptic, is possibly the most powerful and at the same time one of the silliest of the Malley poems. The poem has all the tropes of despair and alienation contained in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ or Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’: ‘And having despaired of ever / Making my obsessions intelligible / I am content at last to be / The sole clerk of my metamorphoses’ (DE, 261). This sense of futility is heightened by the horrors of war that the poet cannot escape, the ‘nightmare’ that was occurring in New Guinea.

The war imagery continues with lines that it would seem are meant as a joke: ‘It is something to be at last speaking / Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate / Only to No-Man’s-Land’ (DE, 262). Again the hoaxer’s joke turns in on itself, for the language of ‘No-Man’s-Land’ again calls into being the death of the author, the language that is ‘freed’ of ownership; the poem is arguably the best example of the hoaxers’ intentions of debunking modernism spinning out of their control.

David Brooks, in his extended reading of ‘Petit Testament’, argues that this poem clearly demonstrates a disconnection between the hoaxers’ intentions and the texts they produced. For Brooks, the hoaxers’ ‘rules of composition’, which insisted that the poems must display ‘no coherent theme … only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as bait to the reader’, are certainly not borne out by ‘Petit Testament’:

Whether or not its authors intend it to, this is to say (and certainly they would have us imagine that they do not), this ‘nonsense’ poem has a number of themes. One might even say … that, with so many themes to intertwine, there is little room left for nonsense: that there is little in the poem that does not, in one way or another, and very frequently in a number of ways, make sense.’3

These themes are not difficult to identify. Most obviously, there is the sense of impending death, the last-will-and-testament of Malley as poet, a theme that effectively serves as the main structural principle of the poem; as Brooks observes, this theme ‘organises the poem and selects, at a primary level, what we might call its referent texts, the sources of its allusions.’4

Additionally, Malley’s spuriousness – and the spuriousness of ‘Petit Testament’ itself – is so clearly intimated in the poem that this also becomes a significant theme. This spuriousness is not only hinted at with the well-known lines ‘It is something to be at last speaking … in this No-Man’s-language appropriate/Only to No-Man’s Land’, but also previously in the poem, when Malley asserts: ‘Here the Tree weeps gum tears/Which are also real: I tell you/These things are real’ (DE, 327). Just in case the reader was not already perceiving a prevalent theme, there are also references to the falseness of appearances, such as ‘the next mirage’, or ‘I resigned to the living all collateral images’, and perhaps most pertinently the allusions late in the poem to Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’. For Brooks, ‘what begins as an occasional sly intimation or wink to the reader becomes subject, becomes theme, and in as much as it has admitted such things, what began as hoax and nonsense poem – as, in effect, non-poem – becomes, more and more, poem proper.’5

If it is not already apparent that the hoaxers’ intentions were becoming muddled in the process of their composition, then Brooks takes his analysis a step further, claiming that the poem positions itself as post-colonial, asserting ‘an insistence upon an alternate, Australian reality.’6 This is apparent in the aforementioned reference to the tree weeping ‘gum tears’, which are as real as the ideal image of ‘the sole Arabian Tree’ – it is worth noting here that, whether the hoaxers were aware of it or not, the imagery is working on a number of levels, both hinting at spuriousness and at the same time invoking a sense of a distinct ‘reality’, an ‘Australian-ness’ that sets itself apart from the more exotic imagery of the poem:

… where I have lived
Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
Guernica is the ticking of the clock
The nightmare has become real, not as belief
But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo. (DE, 327-328)

This passage invokes the European horror of Guernica and insists that the same horror – in the battle for New Guinea – is occurring in the southern hemisphere; that ‘the nightmare’ is indeed an Australian reality as well. Interestingly, it is difficult to conceive that the hoaxers could believe this ‘nightmare’ to be ridiculous or nonsense, especially given their positions as military personnel. As Brooks notes, in this passage ‘Ern’s statement, it can be very plausibly assumed, is their statement.’7 Effectively, a border has been crossed here, the line between hoax and non-hoax blurred, and authorial authority exposed as fundamentally unstable.

McAuley and Stewart’s assertion that the poems were ‘utterly devoid of literary merit’ becomes increasingly difficult to sustain with every reading of The Darkening Ecliptic. It would seem – as already mentioned – that the hoaxers in fact hoaxed themselves, transforming the material they were imitating into something rich and powerful. The result is a poetry that draws the reader to it even as the more ludicrous images maintain their comic effect; whatever McAuley and Stewart’s intentions were, the poems have taken on a life of their own, surpassing any authority their creators may have legitimately claimed over the text.

  1. Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 152.
  2. Eagleton, 1983, p. 138.
  3. David Brooks, ‘Petit Testament’: A Reading (on the Ern Malley hoax), Jacket 29 (June 2002)
  4. Brooks, 2002.
  5. Brooks, 2002.
  6. Brooks, 2002.
  7. Brooks, 2002.
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