John Tranter: The Malley Variations

  John Tranter
  The Malley Variations

from Urban Myths — 210 poems, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 4067, Australia: A.D. 2006,
p.276 to p.292.


An American in Paris

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
US writer Henry Miller


A beautiful nap, and April comes to kiss
my bleak mood. We have sunlight, at last.
Paris drags itself into Spring,

a moist pink glow in the ashy sky.
I drift to the party. I sing black, then white,
I have I found you, my brothel,

my next mirage. A woman gets up wearily,
bulging and superb. She at the wash basin…
I might pollute her, the humblest mortal alive

melancholy with perspiration.
A businessman enters, he takes off his jacket.
Red wine, dandruff, gaudy socks,

a foul faithfulness. And yet I know
why she is warming his fingers.
He has a poem in his pocket. They read, and,

chock-full of looking, make a speech:
the artist needs loneliness. Always
alone — Walt Whitman, Poe.

My blood falters. Loneliness? Memo:
Speak to God in private. A noise outside —
the President of the Planet, in the dark street?

It must be Him. His Hands are Buildings.
I return to the pool of contempt.
I write. I write what? Mélodie

the room is lined with books
and the next play will open the shutters
on a very epic of devotion.



Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
US poet Allen Ginsberg, 1979, photo courtesy Wikipedia.


Love is endless oil and the best
robots doze in jail, waiting
for the roof-vibrating voice,
the chatter on the streets more piercing
than a princess screaming under a meat truck.
My trembling ass will sit on her brilliant eyes.

Yet in my pocket I keep a fortune cookie:
‘Frictions lead nowhere, vinegary death.’
I have been bitter with you, I have
waited in dreams and invented
the twenty-five thousand comrades
who came to resurrect the tubercular utterance
from the fading vomiting wave, each heart
a package devoured by the cannibal dynamo
of corporate growth.

And from the narcotic haze of Bloomingdale’s
I was that damaged old man who watched
the inept shoppers mount a ladder of pain,
debtors who copulated with the cash economy
and were burned alive in the money vortex
despite the interpolations of intelligent editors,
those human prose angels who night after night
traced a pencil across a screen.

You lived with articulate migraines
where the Chinaman of the Southern Shore
cavorted in a sideshow; mustard-gas girls appear
in the divine aquaria where you drink,
and the moist, gaunt waitresses of advertising.

You will be that charm whom I abandon,
wake up in poverty and then, in disgust, return to,
upon my tongue the spittle of insulin.


The Master of the Black Stones

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
Friend, smoking, with Yasunari Kawabata, right.


The master listened, a vacant expression
on his face. Would this be his last game?
I was worried that the amateur audience
would be sickened by the violence of the conflict.
The planets symbolised the different openings
and the weather was a problem, ever since
his tournament among the foreigners to the east.
The clock was a good persuader.

Aeons of crisis, then we see the incredible patterns
that he was fond of spreading across the board.
‘And I must go among rage, envy and ugly rumours,’
he complained. ‘Roses, perfumes, idylls breathed
in my travels, dying upon the sad autumn of my age.’
He had endured pain and the slant sun
now descending behind the abraded hill.

Now he saw the four naked breasts of his two wives
as they hovered near in the dim evening light.
His first wife, what was her mountain girlhood like?
Angels lighting a teacher. I looked
in her hand for the line of shadows
and obscurity, playing on a sofa
by the night’s other darkness.

It was planned that a poet would speak
to the winners, codicil to our thin conclusions.
The eyes downcast, he began reading
and his voice grew resonant:

‘The night of the owl turned to defeated cumulus
and stagnant ponds of ancestral duty,
yes, and malignant waters.
It is necessary to swim under a reef
to reach the secret cave —
the locus of clamour and claw —
through evanescent waters
to the world of pure white clouds.’

Flying High

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
Captain W.E. Johns, not really a “Captain” at all, but a British airman in World War One. Author of the “Biggles” books about a plucky British airman between the wars.


He held contest with the vegetable universe
that marks us at birth with its vigour.
‘So, Princess, you know,’ he said curtly
and jumped clear, leaving the others to the darkness.
‘Okay, go ahead, towards the machine-guns.’
Quantities of time he had, and a pistol at his side,
holstered. A rush of disturbed swallows lifted up.
I have peered over his face: what art there is
in not mistaking his kneeling on water
or falling into the abattoirs.

The metallic birds swear by their prey.
The machine was a sword to hew a passage
to the future. If he could set fire to the water…
The aircraft guns roared, a signal,
and the winds bothered our ears.

Apparently the ‘feel’ of the surface of the fiord
was all wrong, and a vague mistrust followed the affair.
He stumbled often, but no one minded,
and then, hooking him back into his original pose
of quiet reflection, a peculiar smile
crept over his face, and he could not but obey.
Now he taunts the water, and then did my voice
build the coloured deceit in the vision:
I shall make it impossible for this swastika,
painted and venomous, to pierce the prairie.

That is what was so complicated: Schaffer appeared,
puffing, I knew what he was wet with,
dazed by the naked and ribald interventions:
he climbed up like a bird into a storm
of hostile aircraft but his friends were
still a hundred feet away. His lingo
was appropriate only to a German.

The end came suddenly, in English.
The airmen dispersed in the fog of luck,
a whoof-whoof-whoof of angels’ light.
The rest of me flopped back into the very desire
that was always beyond him.


Pussy Willow

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
North American author Louisa May Alcott


Yes, he did do wrong, this harum-scarum
boy who had got a wilful fit on him,
and a nature apt to tantalize.
He can make suggestions so sly and then
apologise with pink cakes and lemonade,
and hope to be forgiven — for what?

Mother went upstairs in a convulsion
as prim as a colt in a shuddering embrace,
singing blithely as she entered the room
kept locked for generations. She,
an obediently ascending bird
looked pale with relief. ‘So I am in love.’

SOUND EFFECTS: Knock, knock… When
grandfather, in his too rigid state,
awash with catalogs, pounded the floor again,
his bearded rage astonished the century.
What now for the hymns of lust that flow
between the old gentleman and his charge?

‘Begin our little play! It is nightfall —
in this measley tale, the woman settles down
to appraise the new men,’ cried Meg.
‘I don’t want any new ones,’ muttered Jo.
‘I assert my work of novel glory in the tongs.
My wishes are my mausoleum, and my doom.’

Thus she of the wavy locks wailed petulantly,
and stood aloof, though she quaked a little
at the hero’s rude touch. ‘It isn’t the things
on the sound track that bother me. It’s the hidden
goings-on. You have lived out of bounds. No,
don’t wink and grimace; winking is wrong.’

‘While you’re sneering at least you could
atone for the fun at the sunny window,’ cried Meg,
who knew a good time when she saw one.
‘How the vile emotional morass messes up
the voting patterns, and vexes the social process.’
MYSELF: ‘So long, if you won’t let me help you,

or shake you! I go to tell our fairy decorator
there are no more little people to be so adorned.
Lollipops and leprechauns, consumer durables,
your brain is drummed and flattened with this stuff.
The old President warned us in his wisdom
that a comfortable universe cripples us at birth.’

‘Oh fudge,’ retorted Meg, whose gloves,
like pair of dancing moths, spoke to the deaf:
to wit, the limping handyman, an injured guy
who, at a midnight tête-à-tête an age ago,
had held her sister in a crude embrace.
Everything went watery, decades passed:

she was dismayed to find that on the rebound
she had married a Major, done a tour of duty
in some flyblown army depot in the desert,
then washed up in a suburb thronged with wives.
Military life surprised her with its deft routines,
and gave each act a sense of political aptness.

One evening, wits akimbo, lost in the mirror
in silvery garb, Meg found herself
at peace, suddenly content, even euphoric.
OLD MAN: ‘We shall all rest snug tonight.’
His augury began to unravel its sly
portentous meaning, and the play began.


Smaller Women

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
North American author Louisa May Alcott


I resigned to tell mother a secret sign,
insolent napkin. But it’s natural to commit a crime,
the second dose of germs that make you cross,
and then the moral lapses teach us
          with their beaks.

Among the crimes you botched, were you not
floating up to heaven in a frock? ‘Bless you,
bless the solemn symphony of duty.’
Grudging duty, that is, to quickly quell
          a pallid polka

or pump up a yelping shiver to a spasm,
the kind that young gentleman only hear about
rattling their rusty skates among the rafters.
I came here young, able and long-shanked
          and left limping.

Oh, tell it to the horse marines, that if we were
agreeable, why, we were also — just a little —
ashamed of our pink hissy fits. Thus taught,
‘Shiftless, have done for, knock and enter.’
          So, knock it off.

As the slumbrous subject of heaven glares
down on us, do the children aspire to a better
pedagogy? Bless your more sensitive arm.
And I may advertise — forgive me —
          a scribbled graph

that would paper over the filthy morass
to which you now offer amorous admission,
lures of tissue-paper, to clog the pale
epochs yawning on the baroque porch,
          your careless greed.



Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
US author Gertrude Stein, 1936, during her triumphal American tour, photo by Carl Van Vechten.


Paris was not a place, it was the event,
and in that event the great writer
wrote about her grand obsession: herself.
Remember that the great writer liked
the evening telephone. The fade of age.

She said snob strongly and snob often,
that was what she wanted.
If you go to the reading-rooms
as a result of smoking the herb of contempt
nothing you read will do you any good.
Why am I talking to you?

We received at least the evening sky
which was hers to inherit; that,
and a few thousand dollars.

My friendships after all, Helene said,
were based on direct emotion.
She did not stifle the great writer,
rather the work of the great writer
stifled others, a known council of vulgarisers.
You are journalists, Helene said,
you are all mechanical men.
Helene would be more inclined to violence, and
these femmes de ménage stumbled into
a life filled with permanent anger.
Naturally it is a big explosion,
she yelled. You remember emotions.

The great writer had a mystic in to teach us
mysticism. He was attracted by Janet.
Drop dead, Janet said. So he taught
moral tales, how ambition clogs the career.
Discretion is a kid of dilution, courtesy a limp.

O far shore, wrote the voice.

They met in the Luxembourg Gardens and
paperback in hand, turned to rend
what was left of my love story —
those dark intellectual comments,
later printed in the Moral Tales.

There were traces in the enormous room
of what had made them.
Just stay here. We spent hours there.
To have lain with a little book.

O drink, bring peace to the flesh.


Under Tuscan Skies

Man believed to be the Australian poet “Ern Malley”, Sydney to Melbourne night express, 29 April 1941, Sun Photo Archive.
British Novelist E.M. Forster


In the calm of a Lyons’ Tea Shop near Piccadilly
punctuated with rustling noises and clinkings,
Luke found himself looking back
on his time in Tuscany. He had seen it then
as ‘the life so short, the craft so long to learn’,
in fact venomous to endure, those
horrible neighbours, but useful fodder
for his writing project, at the time, but now
in the British gloom it seemed fleeting and fruitless,
like the life of a white foam flake
amid a clashing of steel knives and hot looks —
why had he written it up in the form of little
poems, clotted with factitious insights? —
tissue-paper in a threshing machine — in fact,
he now prefers the incomplete circle of his drafts
to the blunt certainty of the finished book, as
the months of hope spent plotting his little holiday
were better than the awful actuality.
What had he written? Watery flashback —

The ancient Roman sun preserves the sky,
reserving his warmth to faithfulness,
shining upon the undismayed towers,
whose images enscrolled the situation.
Lucy, recently rebuffed, sat speaking her mind
to her frequent and attentive male companion,
to hew a passage to his understanding.
‘He, the God of Love and Shopping
may not have been hurt by your bruising snub,
to Him it’s just water off a cold shoulder,’
she murmured, nudging closer. Would
clutch come to seize? And seize
to feed a passion? Eager boys, she knew,
would be prostrate at her feet, if they could.

A conversation in the forest, the grove
that borders the municipal zoo:
Her sex makes a brief longing.
— Thank you, more of the same.
I went straight to the heart of the matter.
— My dear, gentlemen are different.
But these two ladies are as bright as possible.
— Then what are you made of?
The same stuff as parsons are, but
with a warmer blood in my body.

They were walking about like restless animals,
ursine, almost blasphemous in their excessive exercise.

In a deft aside Luke explained the meaning
of the landscape, I mean the Mediterranean.
It was satisfying to imagine those huge
geological forces striving for a million years
to provide a vista that perfectly illustrated
certain Romantic imaginings that gushed out of
the tail-pipe of the Industrial Revolution.

The scene: The arrival. The action: She knew.
Lucy rehearsed her emotions under Parnassus,
till the late hour caught in her throat.
I was young fool! That fight with the driver!
Blunder, irretrievable, and so forth.

The clumsy dolt. Social gaffe. Red face.
Lucy, wincing, understanding everything.
Ow! He will never forgive me! Fuck it!

But why should she be upset? She’s just a girl,
and one day as a lady she will sweep away
the wraiths that cloud the view, just as
a Viennese mind doctor with a gesture
calms a dog. But now, at muggy midnight,
she found herself alone on the road,
engraving her love malignantly upon a stone,
as a seething of hyacinths breathed
upon the hushed evening. So be it!
In the snows of recognition there is little warmth
and less life; better to guess and hesitate.
Now a storm yells and clambers over the horizon,
battering rain herds them into a shelter,
among the shadows comes forgiveness,
a prison of green centuries gladly huddled into.
Shuddering they reach out for
one another’s mortifying spasms…

I had read, Luke murmured to himself,
that the floods of love in their urgent spate
magnify a horoscope, and that the god of fate,
leaning on the sky, counts our chances
on enormous fingers — so let the storm cease:
now the world is soaked and glittering,
and the young lovers creep back to find
their place in it, among the clattering traffic
and the rattle of cups.


Year Dot

The Wollahra office of Di Jones Real Estate in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.


Once I read of how one hushed
peasant, his aphorisms
of the loaded zodiac cursing
the street, desires a double garage.

A little pamphlet remains,
printed on a skull; new
images of genteel property
lean over the coloured board:

icons of fur and coffee,
the solemn symphony of a tree,
the silver nymph dozing
in a sleek modern kitchen.

Waking, her rage and enchantment
tremble in the language, her
beast’s mouth and lashing tail.
The nymph from her elegant home

offers furious love
under an entertaining sky.
The striped fish move
through a new architecture.

Nightfall, and I must sleep in this
quaint shack, shades drawn,
inscribing the heart’s stuttering
graph upon a dark glass,

nodding where the cockroach
applauds at his own funeral.
Now, a plausible future: in a
family home with ample furniture

I shall live as an imprisoned ghost.
Slow riot, enough sleep. Fate in my left
pocket, purple sky above: the rear lane
access allows my adieu. Adieu!


The Urn of Loneliness

British Author Radclyffe Hall (right?) left and Lady Una Troubridge with their dachshunds at Crufts dog show, February 1923 (copy)


Morton opened the diary: ‘The hot flush of Angela’s lips
tasted of her dual nature, when she kissed me…’
Mary was mooning over her, but this loose dance

had awakened a desire for a sterile kiss —
now starting to kiss her, meeting
in the physical pain, the focus of a strong drug

and her voice not giving out its meaning
for Angela, for the men crowded at the bar,
those whom ‘Lesley’ adored, her fierce look

gathering in chairs, pictures,
the metal birds looking on, their
mocking chided her, and would distract her,

so she shook her head — she felt
bruised, bitterly helpless. And ‘Lesley’ —
she found herself staring at ‘Lesley’!’

She had an ugly red scar down the skull
and a wart on her dark lids, those eyes
that would gaze with repugnance on Mary.

Was ‘Lesley’ loving Mary, or placidly grazing?
‘Lesley’ was no more the restrained person.
She must stop kissing this little marred face…

Her voice had brought the jungle — lions
are their emotions. ‘Yes, those emotions.
They were not divine that night,’ said Morton.

They had lived in their green descant of love
for months, but now, sainted with contempt,
she must lift her attentions to that purpose

of a dark eclipse, failing in spite of her cunning
to see the gush of ancestral duty.
Because she was so like a beast, she felt,

she had put out her hand to ‘Lesley’
who was still forgiving an endless cruelty.
Mary would clutch her coat, moist yet tawdry,

timid yet dissident. She recoiled at Morton’s touch.
She looked over these sunken sodden wretches,
saying ‘The terror, why can’t they understand?’ —

‘Lesley’ rushed in to talk to her once more
in the long night, these were torments to Morton.
‘Is it my fault,’ he cried, ‘that the sad autumn of Mary

turned into hate? That Mary’s anger
gave way to shame?’ ‘Don’t look,’
Mary stammered. She knew she had a shame,

called ‘normal’. Why had she let ‘Lesley’ mutter
‘I want to arrive at the so-called normal,’
and not curtail that gaffe? Morton closed the book.



These ten poems are votive and unwilling collaborations, utilising the ‘Breakdown’ computer program. The voice of Ern Malley is inspired by and speaks through the voices of other writers
at key moments in their careers.

— ‘An American in Paris’, Ern Malley and Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer.

— ‘Benzedrine’, Ern Malley and Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.

— ‘The Master of the Black Stones’, Ern Malley and Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go.

— ‘Flying High’, Ern Malley and Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles Defies the Swastika.

— ‘Pussy Willow’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.

— ‘Smaller Women’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.

— ‘Transatlantic’, Ern Malley and Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas.

— ‘Under Tuscan Skies’, Ern Malley and Edward Morgan Forster, Room With a View.

— ‘Year Dot’, Ern Malley and real estate advertisements for properties offered for sale in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, June and July 1994.

— ‘The Urn of Loneliness’, Ern Malley and Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness.


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