Sounding the syllables

The word, Geelong: it even sounds slow, doesn’t it? The elongated vowels; the way your tongue sticks in the ‘l’; the sauntering, circular nature of it. Long touted Sleepy Hollow, Geelong is a meandering kind of a place: pacing itself out from the waterfront, overlooking industry and the misty, sloping You Yangs; rolling back over the hills to the quiet reaches of suburbia. It’s a place that’s very much on the way: to Melbourne, to the Great Ocean Road, to coastal holidays filled with sandy feet and lazy days.

But underneath the Sandy Stone-esque facade, it’s also a place thick with a passionate arts and cultural scene, surrounded by vibrant coastal areas, and home to names like Chrissie Amphlett, Helen Garner and Xavier Rudd.

Not to mention Grant Fraser: a towering, gentle fellow with one of those storytelling voices that makes you think of crackling fires, jackets with elbow patches and the curling smoke of a pipe.

Poet, lawyer, teacher, actor (with a tiny part in Alvin Purple—‘If you look very carefully, I’m sitting in the court, wearing a suit,’ he says, rather sheepishly) and now filmmaker, Fraser arrives at my front door on a crisp Sunday morning to talk to me about his new film on poetry.

Stylishly titled Syllable to Sound, the film is more specifically about the role of poetry in times of oppression, and showcases poets Anna Akhmatova, Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, Emily Dickinson, Marjorie Agosin, Primo Levi, Rupert Brooke and Zbigniew Herbert.

‘I suppose it’s a personal piece,’ Fraser says when probed about his reasons for making the film. ‘Sadly these things are locked away, and people don’t know about them. How important these people were, in terms of human courage, and the beauty of humanity. I think it’s also about acknowledging that the human voice is so wonderfully powerful. That one voice can be raised and heard and have any meaning in that circumstance.’

He talks about the voice of Primo Levi, an Italian poet and survivor of Auschwitz. ‘Levi’s poems discuss the regard for humanity that survived Auschwitz. Some people were reduced to bestiality, but others were still looking out for one another. There was a sad coda to his life because he couldn’t write about Auschwitz for a number of years. There’s a famous quote: “After Auschwitz, there is no poetry.” I think, at great cost to himself, he wrote about it, in a beautifully eloquent remembrance of something awful. And then, in about his 50s, he leant over a stairwell and killed himself.’

Then there’s Osip Mandelstam. ‘He would recite the poem to a few people,’ Fraser says, ‘because it was too dangerous to have it written down. Or it was buried in the backyard somewhere. And there’d be two or three people in the world who would know the poems. But they remembered them, and they would emerge later on.’

Written during the Russian revolution, Mandelstam’s poetry had such an effect on Stalin that Mandelstam was, chillingly, ‘isolated, but preserved ... He lived this awful life, was forced to live in the Russian towns where he couldn’t work, living off scraps that people would give him at their own peril. And in his lifetime, he thinks, Well, I’m nothing, I’m reduced to this hollow creature. But that voice, the words, people now cherish. And are enlightened by them.’

This power of words—merely sticks on paper—to revolutionise, comfort, threaten, destroy, is so strong as to be fatal. But what about the power of the poetic voice in democratic, dictatorless Australia?

‘The tradition of poetry in this country is that it’s been private and very personal,’ Fraser says.

‘But there is also a public voice. Public in the sense that here are real issues that touch all of humanity, in a personal and political way. The traditions born out of Eastern Europe give a raw sensibility that poets in Australia 2006 can’t have. You get wonderful poems from people who are alert to, say, Alzheimer’s, or who lived through other forms of grief. But it doesn’t have the sort of cosmic dimension of a tiny voice trying to be raised and heard, against a massive society that wants to crush it.’

A promotional pamphlet describes the film as one ‘about voices and faces’, and it is. Voices musical and melodious, that you wish were yours; faces malleable and engrossing. Everything is quietly distilled: the actors barely move; the background is always black; the lighting is subtle and varies beautifully according to the mood; the music is elegant without being intrusive. All this—the hypnotic simplicity of it—makes the words, the poetry, dynamic; makes it fly out and write itself on the air around you.

And the idea behind the alliterative title Syllable to Sound (from an Emily Dickinson poem) lingers well after the credits roll. ‘Sometimes we can’t quite get the word,’ Fraser says. ‘We sense there’s something that elaborates something we’ve experienced, but we can’t quite get it. And I think what the great poets do is to convert a syllable into a sound. Some people also hold back. Who have the word but don’t say it. There’s an act of courage involved in most poetry, where once you put this down, people are going to read it and know a lot about you.

‘Emily Dickinson talks about the strangeness of poetry and the familiarity. It’s different, it’s strange, I don’t quite understand it, but gee, there’s something familiar about it. Something catches. The light bulb goes on in the head. You’re not often sure, and you can’t even articulate it, but it really leaves a powerful impression.’
Later, having said goodbye to Fraser and sitting down to watch the film for the third time, I’m struck by the power of poetry.

‘The people need poetry that will be their own secret,’ Mandelstam says in ‘Poem 355’. ‘To keep them awake forever, and bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breathing.’ Suddenly, something catches. 

Brooke Davis is a Geelong-based writer. Syllable to Sound will screen on the ABC on Sunday 28 May at 2.50pm. The film will also be shown continuously as a part of the exhibition Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, April 27–May 18, and in St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt, Sydney, May 21–26.



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