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David Lehman

A Note on Harold Stewart

This note was written after a visit to Japan in October 1990.
Harold Steward died in July 1995.
This piece is 715 words or about two printed pages long.



In connection with the Ern Malley hoax, he referred to himself as our ‘wicked Uncle Harold’ and said he ‘was born in the year of the fire dragon and I eat a modernist poet every morning.’



In Japan I met the sole surviving half of Ern Malley. With his army buddy James McAuley (now deceased), Harold Stewart had invented Malley and created his lifework on a single weekend in 1943. A few weeks before flying to Tokyo I had written to Stewart, and when my wife and I arrived in Kyoto a friendly handwritten message was waiting at our hotel. I phoned him and listened to a talkative old man going on about places to visit. Expecting the worst, we met him at the hotel the next morning and found ourselves liking each other so much we didn’t want to separate. We spent the following two mornings and evenings in his company. (Afternoons I had to go to Nagoya and Osaka.) He showed us the Sanjusangendo temple, several shrines, gardens, and a tea house with an adjacent stream featuring the most magnificent ‘painted’ or decorative carp, including one with the white skin and red dot of the Japanese flag.
      Thanks to Harold we learned that ‘Lehman’ in Japanese translates roughly as an oxymoron embracing the void and the cosmos, zero (Rei) and ten thousand (Ichi-man). [In Sapporo Stefanie and I had our hankos made.] Harold’s name in Japanese means, he said, ‘pure emptiness the Japanese way.’ He showed us his favorite statue, that of an old philosopher turned mendicant, and I think I shall always associate him — in his shabby but clean old gray suit — with this particular piece of Buddhist statuary.
      In connection with the Ern Malley hoax, he referred to himself as our ‘wicked Uncle Harold’ and said he ‘was born in the year of the fire dragon and I eat a modernist poet every morning.’ He told us about constructing Ern Malley’s collages out of issues of National Geographic (‘because they were handy’); about a 1940 hoax involving photographic collages that inspired him; and about a university hoax in which he and another fellow were involved — I think it may have appeared in the magazine honi soit, but both memory and my notes fail me here.
      I was surprised to learn that he has never been to England, for his accent struck me as more British than Australian; evidently his grandparents were British. He himself lived in Sydney for twenty-five years, then in Melbourne for an equal length of time, and has now been in Kyoto for twenty-three. I noticed that he had lots of Malley’s lines by heart (e.g., the terrific ones about the incomplete circle and straight drop of a question mark). About his erstwhile coconspirator he said that he and James MacAuley had been at school together and had served in the same military unit. According to Uncle Harold, MacAuley in later years became a doctrinaire Catholic, impossible to argue with and insufferable in general.
      Harold Stewart is irreversibly committed to the view that the Malley hoax had succeeded in exposing the ‘arrogance’ and folly of the easy-to-dupe modernist wing of Australian poetry. At one point, however, he seemed to soften as he mused over the irony that Malley’s work had so eclipsed his own in fame and popularity. Harold said he had never been tempted to write more Malley poems, or to write more poems in the Malley vein, yet I thought I detected in him a certain fondness for the wayward creature he and McAuley had let out into the light.
      Harold was a wonderful guide to Kyoto. He took us to Omen, which specializes in udon noodles, and Agatha, which is named, I think, for Hercule Poirot’s creator, and he quoted haiku at the restaurant. When I said goodbye, I told him he reminded me of the lines in Robert Frost’s ‘Directive’ about the guide who wants you to get lost for only by that method can you find and save yourself. He said he liked that. Then he winked as if to say he knew the whole time that I was one of the enemy modernists — that I loved Malley’s poems as poems, not as darts aimed at hot-air balloons — and that I was OK for all that. I wrote him a valedictory haiku:


Harold Stewart lives
in the land of the rising
sun and moon and stars.


— October 15, 1990


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