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Ern Malley: Complete Poems

The Darkening Ecliptic

‘Do not speak of secret matters in a field full of little hills.’ — Old Proverb.


Preface and Statement
Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495
Sonnets for the Novachord
Sweet William
Boult to Marina
Night Piece

Documentary Film
Night-piece (Alternate Version)
Baroque Exterior
Perspective Lovesong
Culture as Exhibit
Egyptian Register
Young Prince of Tyre
Colloquy with John Keats (and Coda)
Petit Testament

The complete poems (without the Preface and Statement below) are published in
The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry (in the UK and via Amazon) paperback: 474 pages ; Publisher: Dufour Editions; ISBN: 1852243155, and in
The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (in Australia) ISBN: 0140586490, paperback, 512 pages, Publisher: Penguin Australia, from

Photo of Ern Malley, 1941
Preface and Statement

These poems are complete. There are no scoriae or unfulfilled intentions. Every note and revision has been destroyed. There is no biographical data.


These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they have first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy.


The writing was done over five years. Certain changes of mental allegiance and superficial method took place. That is all that needs to be said on the subject of schools and influences.


To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions is the “secret” of style.


When thought, at a certain level, and with a certain intention, discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty does after all exist: the duty of a public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper. To read what has thus been done is another thing again, and implies another order of loyalty.


Simplicity in our time is arrived at by an ambages. There is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images. If I said that this was so because on the level where the world is mental occurrence a point-to-point relation is no longer genuine I should be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.


Those who say: What might not X have done if he had lived? demonstrate their different way of living from the poet’s way. It is a kind of truth, which I have tried to express, to say in return: All one can do in one’s span of time is to uncover a set of objective allegiances. The rest is not one’s concern.

Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495, watercolour

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) Innsbruck mit dem Blick auf den Patscherkofel (View of Innsbruck with Patscherkofel) Watercolour, circa 1495.

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.

Sonnets for the Novachord


Rise from the wrist, o kestrel
Mind, to a clear expanse.
Perform your high dance
On the clouds of ancestral
Duty. Hawk at the wraith
Of remembered emotions.
Vindicate our high notions
Of a new and pitiless faith.
It is not without risk!
In a lofty attempt
The fool makes a brisk
Tumble. Rightly contempt
Rewards the cloud-foot unwary
Who falls to the prairie.


Poetry: the loaves and fishes,
Or no less miracle;
For in this deft pentacle
We imprison our wishes.

Though stilled to alabaster
This Ichthys shall swim
From the mind’s disaster
On the volatile hymn.

If this be the norm
Of our serious frolic
There’s no remorse:

Our magical force
Cleaves the ignorant storm
On the hyperbolic.

Sweet William

I have avoided your wide English eyes:
But now I am whirled in their vortex.
My blood becomes a Damaged Man
Most like your Albion;
And I must go with stone feet
Down the staircase of flesh
To where in a shuddering embrace
My toppling opposites commit
The obscene, the unforgivable rape.

One moment of daylight let me have
Like a white arm thrust
Out of the dark and self-denying wave
And in the one moment I
Shall irremediably attest
How (though with sobs, and torn cries bleeding)
My white swan of quietness lies
Sanctified on my black swan’s breast.

Boult to Marina

Only a part of me shall triumph in this
(I am not Pericles)
Though I have your silken eyes to kiss
And maiden-knees
Part of me remains, wench, Boult-upright
The rest of me drops off into the night.

What would you have me do? Go to the wars?
There’s damned deceit
In these wounds, thrusts, shell-holes, of the cause
And I’m no cheat.
So blowing this lily as trumpet with my lips
I assert my original glory in the dark eclipse.

Sainted and schismatic would you be?
Four frowning bedposts
Will be the cliffs of your wind-thrummelled sea
Lady of these coasts,
Blown lily, surplice and stole of Mytilene,
You shall rest snug to-night and know what I mean.


That rabbit’s foot I carried in my left pocket
Has worn a haemorrhage in the lining
The bunch of keys I carry with it
Jingles like fate in my omphagic ear
And when I stepped clear of the solid basalt
The introverted obelisk of night
I seized upon this Traumdeutung as a sword
To hew a passage to my love.

And now out of life, permanent revenant
I assert: the caterpillar feet
Of these predictions lead nowhere,
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark
And yet I know I shall be raised up
On the vertical banners of praise.

The rabbit’s foot of fur and claw
Taps on the drain-pipe. In the alley
The children throw a ball against
Their future walls. The evening
Settles down like a brooding bird
Over streets that divide our life like a trauma
Would it be strange now to meet
The figure that strode hell swinging
His head by the hair
On Princess Street?

Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

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

Among the water-lilies
A splash — white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

Documentary Film

Innumerable the images
The register of birth and dying
Under the carved rococo porch
The Tigris — Venice — Melbourne — The Ch’en Plain —
And the sound track like a trail of saliva.
Dürer: “Samson killing the Lion” 1498
Thumbs twisting the great snarl of the beast’s mouth
Tail thrashing the air of disturbed swallows
That fly to the castle on the abraded hill
Samson that great city, his anatomy on fire
Grasping with gnarled hands at the mad wasps
Yet while his bearded rage survives contriving
An entelechy of clouds and trumpets.
There have been interpolations, false syndromes
Like a rivet through the hand
Such deliberate suppressions of crisis as
The slant sun now descending
Upon the montage of the desecrate womb
Opened like a drain.
The young men aspire
Like departing souls from leaking roofs
And fractured imploring windows to
(All must be synchronized, the jagged
Quartz of vision with the asphalt of human speech)
The elephant motifs contorted on admonitory walls,
The subtle nagas that raise the cobra hood
And hiss in the white masterful face.
What are these mirk channels of the flesh
That now sweep me from
The blood-dripping hirsute maw of night’s other temple
Down through the helpless row of bonzes
Till peace suddenly comes:
The solemn symphony of angels lighting
My steps with music, o consolations!
O far shore, target and shield that I now
Desire beyond these terrestrial commitments.


There are ribald interventions
Like spurious seals upon
A Chinese landscape-roll
Or tangents to the rainbow.
We have known these declensions,
Have winked when Hyperion
Was transmuted to a troll.
We dubbed it a sideshow.

Now we find, too late
That these distractions were clues
To a transposed version
Of our too rigid state.
It is an ancient forgotten ruse
And a natural diversion.
Wiser now, but dissident,

I snap off your wrist
Like a stalk that entangles
And make my adieu.
Remember, in any event,
I was a haphazard amorist
Caught on the unlikely angles
Of an awkward arrangement. Weren’t you?

Night-piece (Alternate Version)

The intemperate torch grazed
With fire the umbel of the dark.
The pond-lilies could not stifle
The green descant of frogs.

We had not heeded the warning
That the iron birds creaked.
As we swung the park-gates
Their beaks glinted with dew.

A splash — the silver nymph
Was a foam flake in the night.
But though the careful winds
Visited our trembling flesh
They carried no echo.

Baroque Exterior

When the hysterical vision strikes
The façade of an era it manifests
Its insidious relations.
The windowed eyes gleam with terror
The twin balconies are breasts
And at the efflux of a period’s error
Is a carved malicious portico.
Everyman arrests
His motives in these anthropoid erections.

Momentarily we awake —
Even as lately through wide eyes I saw
The promise of a new architecture
Of more sensitive pride, and I cursed
For the first time my own obliteration.
What Inigo had built I perceived
In a dream of recognition,
And for nights afterwards struggled
Helpless against the choking
Sands of time in my throat.

Perspective Lovesong

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.

It seemed that we were submerged
Under a reef of coral to tantalize
The wise-grinning shark. The waters flashed
With Blue Angels and Moorish Idols.
And if I mistook your dark hair for weed
Was it not floating upon my tides?

I have remembered the chiaroscuro
Of your naked breasts and loins.
For you were wholly an admonition
That said: “From bright to dark
Is a brief longing. To hasten is now
To delay.” But I could not obey.

Princess, you lived in Princess St.,
Where the urchins pick their nose in the sun
With the left hand. You thought
That paying the price would give you admission
To the sad autumn of my Valhalla.
But I, too, invented faithfulness

Culture as Exhibit

“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds ...” Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)
Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.

I have been noted in the reading-rooms
As a borer of calf-bound volumes
Full of scandals at the Court. (Milord
Had his hand upon that snowy globe
Milady Lucy’s sinister breast . . .) Attendants
Have peered me over while I chewed
Back-numbers of Florentine gazettes
(Knowst not, my Lucia, that he
Who has caparisoned a nun dies
With his twankydillo at the ready? . . .)
But in all of this I got no culture till
I read a little pamphlet on my thighs
Entitled: “Friction as a Social Process.”
Look, my Anopheles,
See how the floor of Heav’n is thick
Inlaid with patines of etcetera . . .
Sting them, sting them, my Anopheles.

Egyptian Register

The hand burns resinous in the evening sky
Which is a lake of roses, perfumes, idylls
Breathed from the wastes of the Tartarean heart.
The skull gathers darkness, like an inept mountain
That broods on its aeons of self-injury.
The spine, barbed and venomous, pierces
The one unmodulated cumulus of cloud
And brings the gush of evanescent waters.
The lungs are Ra’s divine aquaria
Where the striped fish move at will
Towards a purpose darker than a dawn.
The body’s a hillside, darling, moist
With bitter dews of regret.
The genitals (o lures of starveling faiths!)
Make an immense index to my cold remorse.

Magic in the vegetable universe
Marks us at birth upon the forehead
With the ancient ankh. Nature
Has her own green centuries which move
Through our thin convex time. Aeons
Of that purpose slowly riot
In the decimals of our deceiving age.
It may be for nothing that we are:
But what we are continues
In larger patterns than the frontal stone
That taunts the living life.
O those dawn-waders, cold-sea-gazers,
The long-shanked ibises that on the Nile
Told one hushed peasant of rebirth
Move in a calm immortal frieze
On the mausoleum of my incestuous
And self-fructifying death.

Young Prince of Tyre

“Thy ear is liable, thy food is such
As hath been belch’d on by infected lungs”
— Pericles

Inattentive, suborned, betrayed, and shiftless,
You have hawked in your throat and spat
Outrage upon the velocipede of thriftless
Mechanical men posting themselves that
Built you a gibbet in the vile morass
Which now you must dangle on, alas.

The eyeless worm threads the bone, the living
Stand upright by habitual insouciance
Else they would fall. But how unforgiving
Are they to nonce-men that falter in the dance!
Their words are clews that clutched you on the post
And you were hung up, dry, a fidgety ghost.

The magpie’s carol has dried upon his tongue
To a flaky spittle of contempt. The loyalists
Clank their armour. We are no longer young,
And our rusty coat fares badly in the lists.
Poor Thaisa has a red wound in the groin
That ill advises our concupiscence to foin.
Yet there is one that stands i’ the gaps to teach us
The stages of our story. He the dark hero
Moistens his finger in iguana’s blood to beseech us
(Siegfried-like) to renew the language. Nero
And the botched tribe of imperial poets burn
Like the rafters. The new men are cool as spreading fern.

Now get you out, as you can, makeshift singers:
“Sail seas in cockles, have an wish for’t.”
New sign-posts stretch out the road that lingers
Yet on the spool. New images distort
Our creeping disjunct minds to incredible patterns,
Else thwarting the wayward seas to fetch home the slatterns,

Take it for a sign, insolent and superb
That at nightfall the woman who scarcely would
Now opens her cunning thighs to reveal the herb
Of content. The valiant man who withstood
Rage, envy and malignant love, is no more
The wrecked Prince he was on the latter shore.

Colloquy with John Keats

“And the Lord destroyeth the imagination of all them
that had not the truth with them.” (Odes of Solomon 24.8.)

I have been bitter with you, my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow
Was already on his face: “The emotions are not skilled workers.”
Yet we are as the double almond concealed in one shell.
I have mistrusted your apodictic strength
Saying always: Yet why did you not finish Hyperion?
But now I have learned not to curtail
What was in you the valency of speech
The bond of molecular utterance.

I have arranged the interstellar zodiac
With flowers on the Goat’s horn, and curious
Markings on the back of the Crab. I have lain
With the Lion, not with the Virgin, and become
He that discovers meanings.

Now in your honour Keats, I spin
The loaded Zodiac with my left hand
As the man at the fair revolves
His coloured deceitful board. Together
We lean over that whirl of
Beasts flowers images and men
Until it stops . . . Look! my number is up!
Like you I sought at first for Beauty
And then, in disgust, returned
As did you to the locus of sensation
And not till then did my voice build crenellated towers
Of an enteric substance in the air.
Then first I learned to speak clear; then through my turrets
Pealed that Great Bourdon which men have ignored.


We have lived as ectoplasm
The hand that would clutch
Our substance finds that his rude touch
Runs through him a frightful spasm
And hurls him back against the opposite wall.

Petit Testament

In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
That has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage
And having despaired of ever
Making my obsessions intelligible
I am content at last to be
The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
Begin here:

In the year 1943
I resigned to the living all collateral images
Reserving to myself a man’s
Inalienable right to be sad
At his own funeral.
(Here the peacock blinks the eyes
of his multipennate tail.)
In the same year
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 weep gum tears
Which are also real: I tell you
These things are real)
So I forced a parting
Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness.

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 comer.
I have heard them shout in the streets
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.
Set this down too:
I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
Stumbled often, stammered,
But in time the fading voice grows wise
And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
Traces the inevitable graph
And in conclusion:
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade. I
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.
I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.

Angry Penguins, 1944 (cover)

Image, above: cover of the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins; cover art by Sidney Nolan. The two fragments of writing in the painting are printed in small type on the bottom right of the cover, and are quotes from the poem “Petit Testament”, above, as follows:

I said to my love (who is living)
Dear we shall never be that verb
Perched on the sole Arabian Tree

(Here the peacock blinks the eyes
of his multipennate tail.)
Photo of Ern Malley, 1941

Photo, top, and right: Ern Malley, Sydney-Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive. The authenticity of this photograph cannot be guaranteed by Jacket magazine. It may be of the actor Iain Gardiner, from David Perry's film The Refracting Glasses, 1992. Photograph copyright © David Perry 1992, 1997, 2002.

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