One of the most unusual national poetic awards received by a Northwestern American poet was won by University of Oregon professor Ernest G. Moll for his collection Cut From Mulga. There are several reasons why Moll’s prize and his poetry are little remarked today. First, the prize was awarded in 1940 by the Commonwealth Literary Committee as best book of the year—in Australia. The book itself was published by the University of Melbourne Press, even though Moll had lived and worked in the U.S. for twenty years by then. Moll’s literary legacy was, and is, split between Australia, where he was born, and the U.S., where he was a professor, mostly at Oregon. Finally, his poetic output, though substantial and usually excellent, was exceptionally varied and unique. In short, he followed his own light and did not fall into a clear ‘school’ or category of poets.
Ernest George “Gerry” Moll (1900-1997) was born in Victoria, Australia. He attended Concordia College in Adelaide, South Australia, then moved to the United States and graduated from Lawrence College in Wisconsin in 1922. He obtained a Master of Arts at Harvard University in 1923. Moll taught at Colorado College in the late 1920s, after which he was appointed Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oregon in 1928, where he taught until retirement in 1966. He died in Oroville, California. I have enjoyed Moll’s poetry for many years and recently re-read his entire poetic output, including a couple of unpublished pieces, as part of a project to bring his work back into print.
The sheer variety of his poetry cannot be overstated. Blue Interval (Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon, 1935) consists entirely of rhymed quatrains related to the history and physical aspects of Crater Lake, the national park in southern Oregon where he worked two summers as a ranger-guide. An example from this work follows.
Night on the Lake
Man is too frail to speak the power of this
Mysterious night or plunge with thought the gloom
Where Cloudcap hangs above the vast abyss
Tremendous in his shadow-robes of doom.
Moll’s granddaughter Nancy, a professor of geology, writes that E. G. Moll’s son Richard, her father, also “worked at Crater Lake for a number of years on fire lookouts etc. and most of his ashes were scattered at various spots in the Park. My Dad’s tales of Crater Lake, which he would often tell me when I was scared of thunderstorms ... are one of the reasons that I went into Geology.”
The poems in Blue Interval display a clear, direct diction characterized in most cases by a reference to either specific parts of the landscape of Crater Lake National Park or the plants and wildlife found there. Unlike some poets who write about the natural world, there is always much more to Moll’s work than layered descriptions of what he sees. An appreciation for the joys and limits of human existence can often be found on or not far below the surface of his work.
Contrast the direct observational lens of Blue Interval with the extraordinary sequence of fifty-five sonnets that constitute Briseis (1965), Moll’s retelling of the core emotional events of the siege of Troy from the point of view of the woman who was traded back and forth like a sack of wheat during the heart of the battle. Here’s an example of just how much action and emotional content Moll packs into a single one of these sonnets. This one is set just after the death of Patroklos (Moll’s chosen spelling), with Agamemnon speaking first in quotes.
His joy was like a dog just off the thong
That ran before him, tripping up his voice:
“Achilles has forgiven me—rejoice!
Speed to him with my gifts! Hurry along
The women and Briseis and the strong
Fleet-footed horses, and tell them that I swear
In all these days and nights I touched no hair
Of her who brought upon us all this wrong!”
I heard him and felt nothing. “Brought upon?”
Let Helen’s be such honor, and let the lie
Smile on its god-like father. Meanwhile I
Go to my lover who would cast me on
The camp’s dunghill if by so doing he could
Unfreeze the current of Patroklos’ blood.
This is Briseis the bold, a woman who has to manage her captivity and her relationships under extremely difficult conditions. The poet’s clear and often colorful language embodies his heroine’s thoughts and efforts and gives the familiar literary incidents of the siege of Troy an entirely fresh and entertaining flavor while remaining true to the events of Homer’s original.
Then we turn to The Rainbow Serpent, a remarkably varied collection published in Sydney in 1962. The lead poem recounts a story connected to Australian aboriginal lore of the Alcheringa, the primordial Dreamtime, in which the figure of the serpent in the shape of a rainbow takes on religious and cultural significance. In this eight-page poem the serpent, in drag, meets some women after one of them, in a moment of ill-considered anger, calls for the snake to come. In a fine example of being careful what you ask for, he does, and their eventual meeting is foreshadowed, indeed, foreboded, by this beginning.
The Rainbow Serpent
The Rainbow Serpent slid between
The hills that lay with open thighs,
(For so he saw them curving through
The lens of lust behind his eyes).
The sun he had not seen nor felt
Through aeons of black loneliness
Pressed on his moving back like hands
In the twin rhythm of a caress
But could not make him pause where he,
Pulsating light in many a hue,
Slid on between the straining hills
To a more urgent rendezvous.
Feel the magnetic tension of the word “straining” in the last quatrain of this introductory section. Straining—away from the unexpected danger/horror/power of the Serpent. Straining—to accept the surprising joy of the profoundly male god-snake’s imperial penetration of the earthly thigh-hills. Straining—to allow the Serpent passage in a filtered form upon which humans can gaze without fear or, indeed, that allows humans to see it at all. All three of these, at a minimum, are borne out in the eventualities of the poem. It is hard to imagine a more perfect, natural and multifunctional word choice.
His award-winning iconic work, Cut From Mulga (Melbourne University Press, 1940), is to some extent a poetic precursor to his autobiographical family recollection, Below These Hills (1957). The bulk of what it contains has to do with rural life in the transitional Australia of the early 20th Century. The general setting is much like the dusty, water-starved outback and Riverina scene-setting in Arthur Upfield’s mystery novels set in Australia at roughly the same time. Some of the specific events set forth in poems in Cut From Mulga can be found in a more linear narrative in Below These Hills, but some are universals of rural life in Australia, e.g.:
The Bush Speaks
I will be your lover
If you keep my ways.
All delights I’ll give you:
Gum-tree scented days,
Skies where kestrels hover,
Nights with stars ablaze.
But if you diminish
Care and think me won,
Other gifts I’ll give you
Edged with thorn and sun,
And the crows will finish
What I have begun.
In addition, this collection includes a poem that connects all of Moll’s geographic forays in one rolling poetico-ornithological tour:
I’ve heard the skylark Shelley heard,
The ruffled thrush that Hardy knew,
The English nightingale that stirred
The dying heart of Keats when dew
Silvered the moonlit lawns where he
Had left so little time to be.
I’ve heard the wren in rocky glades
Darting his silver lance of sound,
And high among the white Cascades
The purple finch pour, round on round,
Fire-music that should swirl and swing
And loose the torrents of the Spring.
And all of these with joy or pain
Were lyrical, as though they wrought
In sunshine or in slanting rain
To free some urgent hidden thought
Whose brightness man at last should see
On the dark brows of Tragedy.
But Kookaburras when the west
Burns red behind the ring-barked trees,
And the dark earth sinks down to rest
And every flower has lost its bees
Shake the still dusk with sudden mirth
Flung recklessly across the earth.
In gusts of sound their laughter breaks
Against the steepening walls of night
And listening then my spirit takes
Backward through time the wings of flight
And hears among the ghosts at play
The lusty laugh of Rabelais.
I have personally heard purple finches singing in the Oregon Cascades and kookaburras cackling in riparian Queensland, as well as the wren and a number of ruffled or at least reasonably attentive thrushes, so I can certify the zoological accuracy of Moll’s poetic vision.
Of the seventeen collections that Moll published, six, including most of his earlier work, were published in Australia and were apparently not very visible in the U.S. This divided legacy extends to his papers, some of which are at the University of Oregon and the bulk, some sixteen boxes, at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His poetic reputation may have suffered from being divided in this way.
One of the known causes of professional fatality in the world of literature is attempting to revive the work of a dead poet. This is particularly true when the poet has been little studied and is even more true when the poet’s general approach to the art considers beauty a perfectly legitimate goal and formal structures a normal and positive way to achieve that goal. Nonetheless, such efforts are made from time to time. Blue Interval was reprinted in a new expanded edition in 2017 by arrangement with Carolyn Moll, the poet’s daughter. With luck we will someday see a reprint of the rest of Moll’s work.
Published Works by Ernest G. Moll
Sedge Fire (1927, Harold Vinal)
Native Moments and other poems (1931, Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon)
Campus Sonnets (1934, Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon)
Blue Interval, (1935, Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon)
*Cut from Mulga (1940, Melbourne University Press)
*Brief Waters (1945, Australasian Publishing Company)
*Beware the Cuckoo and other poems (1947, Australasian Publishing Company)
*The Waterhole (1948, Angus & Robertson, Sydney)
*The Lifted Spear (1953, Angus & Robertson)
The Rainbow Serpent and other poems (1962, Angus & Robertson)
Briseis (1965, Pageant Press)
The Road to Cactus-land (1971, Edwards & Shaw)
The Well and the Star (1983, privately printed)
The View from a Ninetieth Birthday (1992, La Jolla Poets Press)
Recognitions at Ninety-three (1993, privately printed)
The Children of Somalia 1992-1994 and Other Poems (1994, privately printed)
A Gleaner’s Sheaf of Poems (1995, privately printed).
Moll’s other principal published works include The Appreciation of Poetry (1933, F. S. Crofts), Poetry: the Problem of Appreciation (1934, University of Oregon Press) Collected Poems: 1940-55 (1957, Angus & Robertson), which reprinted five of the earlier Australian volumes (marked * above) in a single book, and Below These Hills: the story of a Riverina farm (1957, Melbourne University Press), written in collaboration with his brother Otto.