Ern Malley’s ‘Petit Testament’: A Reading
Like all the other poems in The Darkening Ecliptic, ‘Petit Testament’ has an archaeology. It begins, for example, with allusions to two poems by François Villon (1431-c.1463), the Lais or Petit Testament, written around 1456 (a poem for which James McAuley seems to have had a particular affection[ii]), and the Testament, written, pace its opening line, in 1461, supposedly in the thirtieth year of Villon’s life and just a year or two before he disappears from historical record. The Testament begins ‘En l’an de mon trentiesme aage’(‘In the thirtieth year of my age’), a line clearly echoed in Ern’s own opening.
There is also allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (c.1601), which we will come to shortly, and, to jump ahead three centuries, to Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), a sequence of eighteen poems (James McAuley and Harold Stewart, we might remind ourselves, had written eighteen for their non-existent poet) in which Pound himself presented an account of the work of a non-existent poet, and which, since that non-existent poet bore some resemblance to – was a kind of caricature of – the poet that Pound himself had been, has been seen as Pound’s farewell to an earlier poetic self, a means of changing his poetic skin. Pound had closed the first poem of his own sequence with a statement that Mauberley, his non-existent poet, had ‘passed from men’s memory in l’an trentiesme / De son eage’, an allusion to the same line to which Ern’s own opening alludes, and so establishing that opening as, in fact, a double allusion. There are, too (and amongst others), allusions to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (how much more hollow can you get than Ern Malley, after all?), and the first of his Four Quartets, a recent sensation at the time the Malley poems were being composed.
Eliot and Pound had been amongst the remoter or more ulterior targets of the hoax poems, a kind of third string amongst the poets being attacked, not so much because their own poetry was deemed poor or vulnerable, as for the technical and moral effect they were felt to have had upon later poets such as the ‘surrealist’ Dylan Thomas and the poets of the English Apocalypse, whose work was of some influence upon the young Australian ‘experimental’ poets who are the immediate ostensible subjects of the hoax. Thomas is in this poem too, if only in the term ‘our green age’ (line 21), taken from the opening of ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’, one of the best-known poems from his first collection (18 Poems[that number again], 1934).
But what of the Australian poets who are the ostensible subjects and targets of the hoax? Oddly enough, allusions to and parodies of their work seem rather thin on the ground here. The closest we come – the most evident reference – seems to have the matter both ways. It is to the work of a poet, Alister Kershaw, who might almost to be said to sit in both camps, a fellow-traveller with these experimental poets – one who has published in the same magazines (Angry Penguins, A Comment) – but also one who has written and published therein his own parodies of them, most notably a piece he called the Denunciad in reference to the Dunciad, Alexander Pope’s early eighteenth-century parody/exposé of the Grub Street writers of London. Kershaw’s Denunciad provides the hoaxers – or is it Ern? – not only with the image of the cockroach, one of the more striking in the poem, but with its (and Ern’s) last line:
Tucker who, like a cultured cockroach, lives
Deep in the cleft of split infinitives….
There are various reasons why the Australian poets might be so little in evidence here. Firstly, we must consider that the poetry of Max Harris himself – which, since he is the self-designated ‘leader’ of the new poetry in Australia, with perhaps the highest public profile as a poet, is one of the most logical subjects of parody – is in a sense also out of bounds, since he is also the principal target of the hoax and the hoaxers cannot risk their entire endeavour by having him recognise parodic versions of his own lines. Secondly, the work of these young experimental poets is not well known, and the point and force of the parody might lessened if it is only those who are parodied who can recognize that it is a parody in the first place (particularly if Jonathan Swift was right, that the objects of satire are the least likely to see themselves in it). Thirdly, their work – at least by definition, as in the terms of the hoax itself – is not very good, and, while to point this out might be the intention of the parody, it is hard to do a parody of work that is not good and not have the parody appear itself as something of a shambles. And fourthly there is a matter of their target audience. Every work has an implied as well as an actual reader, an implied as well as an actual audience.
We can tell something about the implied reader of this Ern Malley poem if we look at the texts the hoaxers have used. Although its own authors might be ambivalent about some of them – the Eliot, the Pound, and especially the Thomas – it has used ‘strong’ texts like these, both in the sense that they are written by poets of considerable talent and ability, however one might feel about them, and in the sense that these are works that are fairly well known to educated readers, so that the use of them takes the parody out of the clique of those parodied and into a wider sphere. It might be said that this compromises it as parody, makes of it something else, and it may be that we are here meeting – going over – the border between parody and hoax. Indeed, the manner of this compromise is complicated in itself. Another and perhaps even more significant effect of using ‘strong’ texts is that even the simplest passing allusion to one of them carries its own baggage, brings into the alluding poem evidence – traces – of the themes of the poem being alluded to, gives it a sheen of seriousness that can seem to belie its supposed parodic essence, let alone any claims its authors might make for it as a tissue of nonsense.
Although the only real reason one might want to use a quote from Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ in such a poem as this, for example, might be to point subtly and ironically at the hollowness, as in non-existence, of its supposed author, it would be hard to keep out entirely Eliot’s own sense of men being hollowed – rendered shiftless and impotent – by factors in the society of his own time, just as it would be hard, employing a fragment or two from ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, to keep out of the reader’s mind whispers of immortality, of pure and impure love, the death of ‘Beauty, truth and rarity’, etc. And, with these bits it their teeth – small bits as they are – it would not be hard for readers to find echoes and traces of them elsewhere in the poem. A hint of a theme in one part of a poem will show up, elsewhere in the same poem, a hue in an image that its own author might never have seen before. This process, moreover – this effect of parodic allusion – will vary and perhaps become the more complicated and compromising according to whether or not, or to what extent, the readers recognize the allusions in the first place. Their sense and enjoyment of the parody will increase the more of the allusions they recognize, but on the other hand the more intense and various the allusions the greater the chances will be that the reader is not aware of them all and so is left trying to deal unprotected (as it were) with their ghost strengths, their shells of form and meaning – all the more complicated the stronger the strong texts being parodied or alluded to are, for the stronger the text being alluded to the stronger will be its shadows. And fourthly – for there is a further reason that the Australian poets may not be so much in evidence here, though to suggest it is almost sacrilege – the Australian poets, for all the official story of the hoax, either may not have been its principal targets, or (for this leaves us with the problem of identifying alternate ‘principal’ targets), may have served, ultimately, less as targets than as catalysts for a hoax that took on a life and direction – another, different direction – of its own.
Allusion, it seems, can be deceptive. Not only is it likely to import – to come ghosted with – its original context, but one reference or allusion may contain, be inhabited by, another. We have seen this already in the poem’s opening line, where the allusion to Villon dovetails with the allusion to Pound. Lines 18-25 provide us with another example:
I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
Not having learnt in our green age to forget
The sins that flow between the hands and feet
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
These lines might seem first and foremost – how could it be otherwise, for in part they quote it directly – a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, in which we find:
Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
This direct quotation – a very clear reference to a poem known to a good many of the likely audience – is a loaded one. Those who know Shakespeare’s poem well, or those who look it up in order to prompt their memories, will see the joke almost instantly. The last lines of the ‘Threnos’ (a lyrical lament over the dead) to Shakespeare’s poem not only help the hoaxers to ironise Ern’s own utterance – virtually telling us that any pretensions he might have to truth or beauty are but empty gestures, a mirage – but play significantly upon his name (a hidden ‘signature’, letting the audience know, if there is any chance that they haven’t yet realised it, that this poem is a joke, is not ‘real’):
Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she:
Truth and Beauty buried be.
To this urn let them repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
Indeed, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ has proved something of a gold-mine for the hoaxers, offering them not only a joke on Ern’s name and a chance to intimate yet again (for, as I have suggested, ‘Petit Testament’ is full of such intimations) the spurious nature of their text, but a chance to hint, ironically, at the ‘real’ nature of Ern’s identity: that Ern is in fact not one, but two – that he is, indeed, two-in-one, or one-in-two, a conundrum, a paradox, a kind of textual mystery. ‘Property’, writes Shakespeare – he means ‘essence’ or ‘essential quality’ (he is writing of the love between the Phoenix and the Turtle, so powerful and pure that it melded their natures together):
was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded
But this is to get ahead of myself yet again. Some texts teem with gestures. One attempts to control them at a kind of peril. To order them, to bring them too quickly to a coherent explanation, is also to corral them, to falsify their nature. As we have seen already, the same lines from Ern’s poem allude also to Dylan Thomas:
The Force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer
Thomas’ poem was concerned with death – a number of death poems have been summoned here, almost as if Ern’s poem itself were a kind of funeral and these summoned poems the mourners – and in alluding to it the hoaxers are doubtless trying not only to satirise a poet they feel is near the heart of that malaise in contemporary poetry which has prompted their project in the first place, but also to establish that Ern Malley, their own peon and parody of this malaise, is (of course) influenced by Thomas’style, as no doubt were a number of the ‘experimental’ Australian poets who were the ostensible targets of the hoax.
Perhaps a real sense of what is going on in these lines, however, needs something more. ‘Arabian’ (particularly when in such close proximity to ‘green’, and underpinned by the mention of a gum-tree) was not a word that could be used in Australian poetry circles at this time – especially in McAuley’s own tight circle (Hope and McAuley were close friends) – without evoking A.D. Hope’s ‘Australia’. That controversial poem, only recently published (1939), and still very much in the public mind, presents, in its closing lines, a famous and challenging image of a land which, although ‘[w]ithout songs, architecture, history: / The emotions and superstitions of younger lands’, nonetheless holds out a promise of a much more ancient and enduring wisdom:
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.
The initial effect of an allusion to the above would be to suggest that Ern himself is not a source of any kind of wisdom at all. But the image – we could call it, I think, a thematic gesture – intrudes upon something else in the poem. One could say, indeed, that it is one of those pockets of ambiguity in the poem – in any poem in which such pockets occur – which invite readers into a further level of exploration and potential understanding. And here, of course we are moving from allusion to theme. We should not be surprised: these things – these issues, or areas of consideration – are almost always intertwined. But perhaps, in this particular context, any such shift is a problem, a potential compromise.
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 – indeed it is one of the principal assertions of this essay – 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. The first and most obvious, of course, is the death/farewell/last-will-and-testament theme that gives the poem its pretext. ‘Nonsense’ as the poem is supposed to be – we might recall the hoaxers statement in Fact, just after the hoax was revealed, to the effect that the poems were ‘consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense’, and that one of their ‘rules of composition’ was that ‘there must be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader’ – this theme organises the poem and selects, at a primary level, what we might call its referent texts, the sources of its allusions. A further theme, also quite appropriately, is the foolishness and unreliability of its own author/persona Ern. Another, readily enough distinguishable from this, concerns his spuriousness and the spuriousness of the text itself, a theme so pervasive in the poem (indeed in The Darkening Ecliptic overall) that we might almost think that Ern is obsessed with – has nothing else to talk about but – his own ontological status. And yes, the reader would be right to think that there is a certain complicated division of voice and intent here. We can understand that the hoaxers might have such a preoccupation, and that, by way of ‘signature’, they might wish to convey this spuriousness to the reader, so that, on the one hand, the ‘intelligent’ reader can be in on the joke, and so that, on the other hand, when the hoax is finally revealed, those who have been fooled by it can be made to seem, when it is pointed out to them, all the more foolish and imperceptive. But every hint as to the spuriousness of the persona and the text has to be made through Ern himself, and maintaining the balance of irony here – so that he can seem to do so without knowing that he is doing so – is a very delicate matter, of allusions that he can be imagined to be unaware that he is making, or unaware of the double meaning of when he makes them, of statements made outright about one thing or another, the second, self-ironising meaning of which he can be imagined to be unaware of, etc. And perhaps most delicate here is the matter of degree. The hoaxers are, by this point in their hoax, – ‘Petit Testament’ is the last poem in the sequence, seems to have been designed to be so, and bears signs (this sheer weight of ‘signature’ within it principal amongst them) that is was the last composed – so enjoying their own inventiveness, particularly with regard to such signatures, that they seem unable to resist it. There is not just one ironising double-allusion here, but at least three: to Pound’s non-existent Mauberley by way of Villon; to a small panoply of ironisations from ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ by way the quotation of ‘sole Arabian tree’; and to the hollowness of character through pointed allusion to Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’. So too, there is not one overt statement of spuriousness, but two (‘It is something to be at last speaking / Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate / Only to No-Man’s-Land’, and ‘Here the Tree weeps gum tears / Which are also real: I tell you / These things are real’ – one of them, admittedly, by way of that overstatement-of-the-opposite that we are wont to call ‘protesting too much’), to which might be added a smattering of glancing references to the falseness of appearances (‘mirage’, ‘collateral images’, etc.).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.
To some extent thematic developments of such a reflexive nature, indicative as they might be of a kind of excess or imbalance, are nonetheless quite understandable in a hoax poem. Arguably, indeed, there is a third such theme here, a similarly reflexive preoccupation with voice that presents, ostensibly, as a determination to speak out at last, and a relief at being able to. ‘Having despaired of ever / Making [his] obsessions intelligible’, Ern tells us that he is ‘content at last to be / The sole clerk of [his] metamorphoses’ (could the hoaxers have known that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the phoenix makes its funeral pyre in the branches of a palm tree?). ‘In the year 1943’, he tells us, ‘I resigned to the living all collateral images’ (collateral as in images presented in the place of – as collateral for – something else, with the implication that these had served as security for something else, as a substitute, as something that is not something else; or in the sense of secondary, not the primary object, not the real point: resigning them as in talking straight at last?). And then, even more clearly:
It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinate of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph
In one sense this stance is rhetorical – imminent death, staged as it might be, is likely to enable one to set aside one’s inhibitions, and as the hoax rises to the culmination of its falsity it is ironically apposite that it seems to approach the apogee of its truth-telling. In another sense, we can appreciate – the hoaxers would now have those of us who might now be in the joke appreciate (at once a last crow on their part and a last ludic gift to us) a kind of ‘relief’ that it might all be nearly over and the moment approaching when clear speech is possible. But there may also, ironically, be something else here, likewise deeply germane to the nature of hoaxes – ‘ironically’, in that, if it is here, it is probably not with the conscious permission of the hoaxers themselves: a sense that a voice, ostensibly Ern’s, but arguably something within the hoaxers themselves, is able to speak at last because of the hoax; that the hoax, paradoxically, allows something to be uttered that cannot be uttered through more conventional and reasonable means. This, if it is so, might help to explain some of the haunting power of the Malley poems, and addresses clearly the irony often pointed out by commentators of literary hoaxes, and of the Malley hoax perhaps more than most, that the authors of the hoax wrote better work in the guise of nonsense than they did when they composed seriously and in propria persona. It is also curiously consonant with another aspect of the situation in which many hoaxers – the Malley hoaxers once again most definitely amongst them – might be said to find themselves, and which I have yet to come to. But once again I am getting ahead of myself.
What is most interesting about this poem, certainly for this reader, is that, thematically, there is more. We see it first in the ‘Australian’ lines immediately following the mention of ‘the sole Arabian Tree’:
(Here the Tree weeps gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
We see it also in the strong opening of the poem’s second section:
Where I have lived
The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the corner.
I have heard them shout in the street
The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
And in the magazines I have read
The Popular Front-to-Back.
But 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.
It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.
In the first instance it is a distancing, a distinguishing, a simple setting-apart of Australia, Australianness, or Australian experience, from the matter just mentioned (the ‘Arabian Tree’ and its significations), that is also, in one direction, a distinguishing of the ‘real’ (human, sexual) from the ‘ideal’, and in the other, an insistence that, if the tears of those who weep for those whose deaths are represented by the Arabian Tree (the Phoenix Palm?) are real, the tears of the Australian tree are real also. This smacks of a postcolonial position, an insistence upon an alternate, Australian reality, although without further evidence one should perhaps be hesitant to call it such. That evidence, however, follows swiftly. Spain has had its Guernica (both the massacre and the painting), and people ‘shout in the streets / The chiliasms[iii] of the Socialist Reich’, ‘But’ (and the adversative conjunction is significant here) there is weeping (those tears again) also in the streets of Footscray. The phrase ‘ticking of the clock’ implies that it is only a matter of time before something – we are, I think, to presume that it will be a similar event – will occur, or perhaps has done so already, for the next line tells us baldly that ‘The nightmare has become real’, ‘not as belief’ – not, as I think we are encouraged to read this, as a matter of hear-say, of news from the other side of the planet – but ‘in the scrub-typhus of Mubo’.
It is now that the poem arguably turns, shifts key and direction. If ‘the nightmare’ becomes real here, there is a sense that something similar has happened to the poem also. Mubo was one of the key sites of the war in New Guinea. What we might refer to as the Battle for Mubo had occurred barely five months before the hoax poems were written – Mubo airfield was taken from the Japanese on May 14, 1943; the hoax poems were supposedly composed in October – and while it was perhaps not the worst that Australians experienced in the war in New Guinea, it is representative enough. The hoaxers might have chosen this site in particular for the strangeness of its name. They might also have chosen it because of some piece they had been reading on scrub typhus there (their unit was, after all, providing ‘Advice to [the] Adjutant-General on [the] necessity of establishing entomological services for malarial control’ in New Guinea,[iv] and one imagines that a concern for malaria would extend to other diseases afflicting Australian troops in the tropics). Also called Tsutsugamushi Fever, Chigger Fever, Flood Fever, Island Fever and Akamushi Disease, Scrub Typhus, according to a readily-accessible internet account,[v] ‘is caused by Rickettsia tsutsugamushi (Orientia tsutsugamushi)’:
a tiny intracellular parasite that lives primarily in mites (the primary reservoir) belonging to the species Leptotrombidium (Trombicula) akamushi and Leptotrom-bidium deliense. The Rickettsia organisms are found throughout the mite’s body, but the highest number is present in the salivary glands. When the mite feeds on rodents (eg, rats, moles, and field mice, which are the secondary reservoirs) or humans, the parasites are transmitted to the host.
The disease ‘typically occurs in Southeast Asia and Japan, where the [it] was first described in 1899’:
During World War II, scrub typhus killed or incapacitated thousands of troops who were stationed in rural or jungle areas of the Pacific theatre. The disease is called scrub typhus because it generally occurs after exposure to areas with scrub vegetation because this is where the rodents predominantly live. It has recently been found that the disease can also be prevalent in areas, such as sandy beaches, mountain deserts, and equatorial rain forests.
Frequently fatal (even now – 2006 – fatality is given as between one and sixty percent, depending upon conditions), and with a very unpleasant symptomatology, it is fair to assume that scrub typhus was, for Australian troops on the ground, one of the curses of the war in the tropics. More to the point, it is difficult to imagine that the hoaxers themselves would think otherwise. That not only the scrub typhus of Mubo, but Mubo itself, and the battle for New Guinea of which it was a part – a battle about which McAuley and Stewart, if only by force of their jobs at the time, must known a certain amount – are nightmares become real; that Guernicas are not just a phenomenon of the northern hemisphere but a very real possibility to Australians as well; that Australian tears are as real as European tears: for these things to be false, or at least for these things to be in some way nonsense, ridiculous or risible, the hoaxers would have to be in disagreement with them, and, while not impossible, it is hard to conceive that they would be. Ern’s statement, it can be very plausibly assumed, is their statement here. Not only has a border has been crossed, voices overlapped and become blended and confused, but the poem has become something of a postcolonial affair.
But this is still, officially, a ‘nonsense’ poem. It might be one of its characteristics that it sets up such chimeras of meaning only to undermine them. There is the remainder of the poem to consult. ‘Set this down too’, Ern now instructs us, or at least, in his Villonesque manner (he is, after all, writing his last will), instructs some amanuensis of his imagining:
I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered
We are back with the passage from Kershaw’s Denunciad which provided one of the sources for line 29 (‘Tucker who, like a cultured cockroach, lives / Deep in the cleft of split infinitives’), making a connection here, through what we must assume is an unconscious ironic allusion on Ern’s part, between poetry – poor poetry, misguided poetry, such as his own – and the Satanic (as if such a violation of grammar as, say, splitting the infinitive, were the thin end of the wedge, the opening of a crack in the grammar of being, through which all hell might break loose), and setting us up for Ern’s last line, twelve lines further down. But (again) there is more. McAuley, steeped as he has been so recently in Mallarmé (his MA thesis, submitted two years before, on The Poetics of Symbolism, but also given that Mallarmé has been a consistent allusion – and target – of the hoax poems so far), may well have thought of Mallarmé’s cleft-footed faun at this point, and he and Harold Stewart have almost certainly been thinking of another of the principal ulterior targets of the hoax, T.S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets, which had been appearing one by one since 1936, had only just been published in book form (and which – since what in the hands of the hoaxers might be parody must in Ern’s hands be allusion – we can imagine Ern being drunk upon). The first of these, ‘Burnt Norton’, contains lines which might very well have provided the source for Ern’s own at this point:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
– a tenuous connection, perhaps, were it all that there were here, and had Eliot not been so present in similar ways earlier in the hoax, but these things are cumulative – texts will teach us how to read them – and, as I have just said, there is more. Only four lines later, for example, Eliot’s own passage provides two images (‘The crying shadow in the funeral dance, / The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera’) which seem to crystallise, parodically (or have they themselves been parodied in?), the way Ern has presented himself in this poem. But we don’t really need this. Ern himself almost immediately clears up any doubt. Having told us that ‘in time the fading voice grows wise / And seizing the co-ordiates of all existence / Traces the inevitable graph’, and that ‘There is a moment when the pelvis / Explodes like a grenade’, he turns again to Eliot, his next lines –
Who have lived in the shadow that each act
Casts on the next act now emerge
As loyal as the thistle that in session
Puffs its full seed upon the indicative air.
– a clear[vi] allusion on his part, and parody on the part of the hoaxers, of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’:
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
The most immediate purposes of this parodic allusion are most likely at once to emphasise Ern’s own hollowness – to remind us of and even suggest that Ern is one of ‘the hollow men / … the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw’, whose
dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion
– and this, of course, is perfectly apposite: Eliot’s hollow men must have been, to the hoaxers, a gift too good to resist. But they have also changed his prickly pear into a thistle – indeed, into what, if we take up the rather strange substitution of ‘session’ for ‘season’, and remember that the ‘session’, in one of its significations, is the governing body of the Presbyterian Church, we might assume is a Scotch Thistle, which, although the emblem of Scotland itself, is also, on the other side of the world, one of the great banes of Australian agriculture, a pest, a noxious weed (and about as ‘loyal’ as the Scots, at various points in their history, might have been expected to have been to the English). Have the hoaxers done this to underpin Ern’s stance yet again with a touch of postcolonialism, or have they done it to show him as a weed, a pest that threatens the carefully tended fields of poetry with its air-borne seed? The wind blows both ways. The postcolonial dimension is there whether the hoaxers intended it or not, yet another of the several ways in which the poem could be said to have strangely undermined their expressed intention to create nonsense.
Surely – to approach this from another of its entrances – the flip side of the kind of deep concern with the false and inauthentic that has motivated the hoaxers is a deep concern with the true and authentic. And, as surely, a deep concern for the former indexes a perceived threat to the latter: indeed, this is just as the hoaxers themselves explained their endeavour at the time. If the severity of the response can be taken to indicate in this way the felt severity of the threat, we might see ‘Petit Testament’ and the other hoax texts that accompany it, texts of resistance and refusal as they might be, as texts signalling or reflecting the dawn of postmodernism – its relativism, its changed sense of the nature of truth, its relegation of authenticity – as surely as do the essays of Walter Benjamin of only a very few years before. But – and this is the key – if the cultural hegemony is shifting in this way, and if these poems are signalling, recognizing and resisting this shift, they are also, for such is the nature of the cultural product, products of it: it is in them, even as they reject it. There is, paradoxically, a hint of authenticity – of, that is, ‘true’ postmodernism – in the pastiche they create thereof (just as, as we have just seen, there is an unconscious postcolonialism). Their voice – Ern Malley’s voice – is foxed. There is a part of them – reluctant, even unconscious – that understands him even as they present his products and his opinions as nonsense and therefore as incomprehensible.
We are left staring at the last line, hoping, perhaps, that it will offer us something, a way out, the hint of a resolution. On the one hand – we have of course had this choice all along – we can accept it, as we can accept the entire poem, as nonsense (for isn’t this what the hoaxers have asked us to do – haven’t they, in this sense, always offered us a way out?), and make no attempt to make sense of it, to understand it further (and isn’t this the traditional way to read, and dismiss, the Malley poems?). On the other hand, well, we will not know anything about it if we don’t try. This is, perhaps, the problem and the challenge of the hoax poem in the first place. Does one follow the wisps of meaning, work with them, or does one discount them – as mirages, say – and return to more settled understandings, wait for a less divided voice?
The wind, as I have said, blows both ways. Whether it is simply the ambiguous, divided nature of a hoax itself, or something more, this poem has a crack in it, a scission: indeed, it seems almost to want to confess it.
‘I have split the infinitive’, Ern now tells us: ‘Beyond is anything.’ The infinitive, in English, is a two-word construction – ‘to live’, ‘to love’, ‘to mean’ – and, according to good English usage, one should never ‘split’ it, should never place anything, any other words, any other information, between the auxiliary, ‘to’, and its verb, although by ‘verb’ in the first place we usually mean its infinitive form (auxiliary plus verb), so that we speak of the verb ‘to live’, the verb ‘to love’, etc. An obvious thing to say, perhaps, but it is by way of pointing out that, within the terms of the poem itself, the ‘infinitive’ that is split in Ern’s last line is presumedly the ‘verb’ that, in lines 19 and 20, in its unbroken, perfect and (in light of ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’) immortal form, ‘Perched on the sole Arabian Tree’. We can only guess at what verb that was – to live? to love? to mean?: it might have been any of these things. But we might sense, seeing the poem return to this axis, that it turns, somehow, upon the oscillation between oneness and the two-ness that an assumed oneness might be an attempt to hide.
For this line also confirms something else. To say ‘I have split the infinitive’ is to say, in effect, I have put something in between one part and the other, which, being between, let’s say, the ‘to’ and the ‘act’ (a verb, as my primary school teacher told us, is an action), is but a version of the ‘I / Who have lived in the shadow that each act / Casts on the next act’ of a few lines earlier in the poem, a statement which in its turn could be seen as a virtual definition of the split infinitive; and these images – of a schism, a space between – are foreshadowed, earlier in the poem, by the intriguing lines ‘Where I have lived / The bed bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach / Inhabits the crack’. The bed-bug is the hoaxers’ own, as far as I can tell, an image without evident precedent, and, beyond pointing to way the earlier ‘sins that flow between the hands and feet’ (l.22) are given as the reason that ‘we’ will never be that undivided (un-paused, un-stopped, un-thwarted, un-distracted…) ‘verb’ – the ‘bed bug’ seen, that is, as an affliction of (the affliction of) the temptable flesh – there is perhaps little more that needs to be said. The cockroach, as we have seen, comes from Kershaw, and McAuley himself later glosses it very well indeed. In a way that reflects something of the division, the scission I have been speaking of in the voice of this poem, McAuley takes the image back from – steals it from – Ern a few years later, to redeploy it in his poem ‘New Guinea’ (1954):
Life holds its shape in the modes of dance and music,
The hands of craftsmen trace its patternings;
But stains of blood, and evil spirits, lurk
Like cockroaches in the interstices of things.
The ‘seam’ and the ‘crack’, in other words, may not be the ‘innocent’ images we might at first have thought them, but part of a deeper drama. Earlier – again, it might have seemed innocent, seemed joke enough – we find another hint of division ‘I find myself to be a dromedary / That has run out of water between / One oasis and the next mirage’. And later, most potently, we find the double reference, to the ‘No-Man’s-Language’ of ‘No-Man’s-Land’ – the implication that it is only from the midst of this division, only because of or from the heart of this scission, this place between one army, one set of trenches, one front line and the other, that Ern can speak. We can only guess at what No-Man’s-Land the hoaxers themselves might have had in mind here – perhaps the unanchored, unsponsored ramblings of the (soon-to-be) postmodern mind, left to its own devices – or what force those ‘realer’ No-Man’s-Lands behind them – of the dogmatist in a time of relativism, of the colonial/postcolonial intellectual in Australia between/during the wars, of the sensualist/libertine impulse in an orthodox/intolerant society, or of poetry itself in an environment that would corral its ranging impulse (its impulse to range) with specific injunctions – might have had. What does seem clear is that, in straying off the beaten path and accepted voice of poetry, in straying into the territory of the hoax, the hoaxers – or, rather, the text that they have created – have revealed something that might not otherwise have been revealed (revealed, rather baldly, an ontological anxiety that is arguably at the heart of an Australian poetic, but that is another story…), and that that thing is as much about themselves as it is about their targets: that what their poem might be trying to confess, against or beneath their own conscious efforts, is that at least some part of the voice they are trying to repress is their own.
I could finish there, but there is a small part of this poem’s story still to be told. To a large extent, my own purpose in my recent research has been to establish a connection between the Ern Malley Hoax and the affair Floupette in Paris in 1885, based, apart from the obvious extensive similarities, upon the premise that one of the motivations of at least one of the hoaxers, James McAuley, was to say goodbye, much as Ezra Pound had done in his Mauberley sequence, to an earlier poetic self. In McAuley’s case this was an earlier Symboliste self, the poet having found that the Symboliste aesthetic could not offer him the spiritual guidance he had come to feel that he needed. And yet – and albeit that there are a couple of lines from Mallarmé’s ‘Sonnet en xy’ (‘Maint rêve vespéral brûlé par le Phénix / Que ne recueille pas le cinéraire amphore’: ‘Many a vesperal dream burnt by the Phoenix / Ungathered in a funeral amphore’) which might have provided it with an ideal epigraph – the Symboliste, as a referent, is not so evident in ‘Petit Testament’. French poetry is there in form of the Villon, most certainly, and it may be that a few lines from an 1866 letter by Mallarmé to Théodore Aubanel, had that letter been available to the hoaxers in some form, might have been behind the image of the spider (which the Malley hoax shares, of course, with the ‘Life’ of Floupette): ‘the centre of myself, in which I dwell like a sacred spider, on the main threads that I’ve already spun from my mind and which enable me to weave at the joins wonderful lace, which I envisage, and which already exists within the heart of Beauty’ – but this latter is at arm’s length if it is there at all.
There may be something else, however. When Max Harris published the Malley poems in the sixth issue of Angry Penguins the last line was misprinted as ‘I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.’ The hoaxers themselves were careful to point this out when they gave their carefully misleading account of their motives, sources and method of composition in Fact on the 25th of June. There is something strange and apposite about the slip. Let us – bringing to mind a Derridean sense of play (i.e. that such lateral slips, whatever their origin, can reveal significance, reinscribe the effaced) – consider how we might have read the poem had the hoaxers not carefully pointed out, and thus corrected, the literal. We would have thought about the infinite, and perhaps recalled that Baudelaire had called the Infinite what Mallarmé had subsequently called the Absolute: that is, that the Infinite was at the core of the very Symboliste aesthetic the rejection of which I have elsewhere been arguing was in large part the motivation for – the secret story of – the hoax in the first place. McAuley wrote fairly specifically about the Infinite in his MA thesis on the poetics of symbolism, in a passage which could be seen to clarify a number of things in this and the Malley poems more generally:
Naturally, no clear description is ever given of what is meant by the infinite. … Even if we waive the scepticism which is reasonable on such subjects, we can still point out that, whatever his theory, in practice Baudelaire fails to produce the infinite and gives us only a picture of the world coloured and permeated by his emotions. ‘L’infini que vous portez en vous’ – the profundity of the instinctive and emotional life – is all we can recognise in the poetry. It would be easy to reduce the aesthetic theory in his essay on ‘L’Art Romantique’ to a heap of inconsistent and meaningless assertions, but the task would be a thankless one. Baudelaire’s theory is only of importance because, however confusedly, it brought into prominence the fact that the psyche does seize upon external images as symbols of its own conflicts and emotions. That there is a transformation of objective reality is proved by the evidence of Baudelaire’s poetry itself, but that this transformation takes us into an ideal, infinite realm is neither proved by the poetry nor guaranteed by any evidence yet forthcoming. But Romanticism had to run its course and peter out into a discouraged cynicism before the questionable nature of tis assumptions could be made plain.
Two things in particular are of interest here. Firstly, that McAuley sees Symbolisme as a successor to Romanticism in this regard – no strange thing – and secondly that the criticism of each of these modes or movements here is that they can neither define nor deliver the Infinite upon which they base so much. Whether or not we accept, as I think it is, that this is the resentment of an apostate, is perhaps another matter, but, if we were to do so, we might, for example, have a way of approaching the use of Keats in the previous poem in The Darkening Ecliptic, ‘Colloquy with John Keats’, and of one of its key lines (and one of the more famous from the sequence as a whole):‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’ The emotions are not skilled workers, at least not as McAuley has found them (to speak for one of the hoaxers alone), and a poetic which mistook, for the Infinite, the projections of its own conflicts and emotions – a poetic which, for a time, seems to have given him greater hopes – could no longer, pressed as he was by his own conflicts and emotions, and poised, as he was, on the verge of a career as an administrator, professor and political commentator, claim his allegiance.
[i] This essay first appeared in the 29th issue of the on-line journal Jacket in April 2006 (see http://jacketmagazine.com/29/brooks-petit.html), where it was prefaced by the following note by its editor:
One Saturday in October 1943, in Melbourne, Australia, two young conservative poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted eighteen poems in the style of the currently fashionable ‘Apocalyptic’ poets such as Henry Treece and Dylan Thomas, and submitted them to Max Harris, the 22-year-old editor of the avant garde magazine Angry Penguins, as the work of the recently-dead young poet ‘Ern Malley’, under the general title ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’. The hoax had profound repercussions. A full account is presented in Jacket 17. [ — John Tranter.]
[v] An article by Robert A. Schwartz, accessed July 2005 at http://www.emedicine.com/derm/topic841.htm
[vi] But also compound: see Heyward, p.94, on ‘Keats’s “seeded thistle” which “sendeth fair / Its light balloons into the summer air”.’ A colluquy with Keats’ aesthetic is one of the themes or frames of the later Malley poems.