Three Poems by Frank Webb (Oliver Miller)

I grew up on Sydney’s leafy lower North Shore. Taking out a dinghy from old Joel’s Boatshed at the end of our street, making the long row over to Wreck Bay with my friends, and spending the day fishing off the old rusted ship hull that sleeps there, was one of my favourite holiday pastimes. My family are all musicians, and as a teenager I listened avidly to Wagner and Bruckner as well as Bill Evans and Stevie Wonder. Sometimes I saw a life for myself as a musician and cellist, but at other times I really wanted to be an entomologist, or medieval historian or photographer — I was constantly dabbling! 

Francis Webb

I used to attend the Live Poet’s Society meetings in North Sydney with my Dad: he would read his own poems at these events and even had some of his works published in their annual poetry collection. Dad passed on a book of Francis Webb’s Collected Poems to me around ten years ago, and it was a book that generally sat on my shelf, although I would delve into little bits of it every now and then. Something about its subject matter — the shipwrecks, the struggling explorers, the great composers — and its sheer breadth and mysterious impenetrability, always grabbed my attention. Poetry was not normally something I gravitated towards, but Webb really cut through my hesitancy with the medium.

In 2015 an improvising music ensemble I play with, the NOISE string quartet, released an album that features a 32 minute extended improvisation for cello, viola and electronics that was based loosely on Webb’s early poem ‘Disaster Bay’. This evocative poetic rendering of the tragic sinking of the Ly-Ee Moon down on Australia’s South Coast was a fantastic source of musical and sonic inspiration. When I embarked on a Master’s in Art of the Screen at AFTRS in 2017, it was this kind of inter-medial cross-pollination that I ended up exploring.

Returning from my AFTRS film tutorials one day early 2018, I picked up Webb’s Collected Poems and opened the book on his radio play, Electric. Wading through its dense poetic dialogue, some of which I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, I felt straight away that this was a short film waiting to be made. The journey from that moment of clarity to actually producing a completed 23 minute short film — bearing in mind my total lack of film-making experience — was grueling and all-consuming, but it ultimately proved to be a deeply satisfying process.

My first step, after getting permission to use the text from UWA Publishing, was to get stuck into understanding the poetry. The radio-play itself is almost documentary-like in its portrayal of Ugo Cerletti, an Italian neuroscientist, and his first experiments in the late 1930’s with Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Webb himself suffered terribly with schizophrenia and was no stranger to this treatment, receiving it on many occasions in the various mental institutions that housed and cared for him. I reached out to Webb scholars Toby Davidson, Michael Griffith and Bernadette Brennan, all of whom played a crucial role in helping me develop a vision of how this film would look, feel and sound.

When it came to making Electric, I didn’t want to just render what was on the page into visual form — that really didn’t interest me and would not have been terribly effective. Instead, I wanted to approach the poetry as if it were a musical layer within a larger polyphonic texture. Like listening to a piece of music, I intended the film to function as something to experience, rather than simply hinging it on traditional plot points and character development. Webb’s poetry, in a sense, became a matrix, a kind of loom over which the texture of the film could be woven. Confronted with the text read only as a radio play, I’m sure that many current-day listeners would be totally confused; I felt that by using the medium of film, threads from the text could be interwoven with music, sound and image to create an experience that feels immediate, satisfying, and powerfully communicative.

During the process, I slowly began to realise that making the film itself was an act of reading and comprehension, an active delving into something veiled and mysterious that constantly defied my attempt to impart absolute clarity of purpose and definition. I came to see Electric as a jewel, something you could shift around in your mind and view from many perspectives and levels of sensory experience. So much of Webb’s poetry grapples with the mystery of life itself: he strips back the flesh, sinews and fibers that form our concepts and constructs of reality; lays bare the words, characters and narratives that exist within them. Webb encourages his reader to reach through the illusion of the physical world towards the understanding that — at its core — everything and everyone within it are just patterns and shards of light and cosmic dust.

After spending a year deeply immersed in the production of Electric, I feel that a new thread in my own career has now opened up, and I want to extend on this. I’ve started work to expand on Electric, encapsulating it within two other poetic Webb sequences: A Drum for Ben Boyd and Ward Two. The plan is to ultimately create a feature length film that functions as a kind of biopic of the poet through a rendering of three phases of his life and work. It will be a living and breathing monument to Webb’s poetry. I hope that this film, with its synthesis of music, poetry and visual drama, will forge a special place in Australian cinema. I aim for it to shine light on the work of one of Australia’s most significant — but relatively under-appreciated — cultural figures, doing so in a way that is expressive of Webb’s own artistic output.

However, this is not the style of project that conventional film-funding bodies usually financially assist with. Instead, it is proudly art-cinema, a liquid form of poetry that flows and transmits the depth of the literary genius of Webb in a way that only cinema can. Once brought to completion, I believe Three Poems by Frank Webb will be a unique Australian film: powerful, poetic and beautiful, it will stand as a lasting tribute to the incredible life and poetry of Francis Webb.

To stay abreast of developments with the film or for news of forthcoming screenings of Electric, email or visit Three Poems by Frank Webb.

If you’d like to contribute towards getting the next stage of the project up and running, please visit our crowdfunding page over at the Australian Cultural Fund. Donations are fully tax deductible!  

Ward Two
(from ‘The Old Women’)

Giggling, squinting, with laundry, confectioneries,
Old women bear fodder for the universe, add their spark
To a train of time that blows open the infinite.
It is blackness about them discloses our galaxies.
Look on these faces: now look out at the dark:
It was always and must be always the stuff of light.
The decrepit persistent folly within this place
Will sow with itself the last paddock of space.

Ward Two
(from ‘Wild Honey’)

Saboteur autumn has riddled the pampered folds
Of the sun; gum and willow whisper seditious things;
Servile leaves now kick and toss in revolution,
Wave bunting, die in operatic reds and golds;
And we, the drones, fated for the hundred stings,
Grope among chilly combs of self-contemplation
While the sun, on sufferance, from his palanquin
Offers creation one niggling lukewarm grin.

(from ‘1st Doctor’s Monologue to The Patient’)

Friend, we row together. Quite a way:
And that curve ahead – but think of yesterday.
Giggle of pizzicati. There’s a rank

Of people, young and old, along the bank:
First, and always, the people, sane and wise,
The word behind the hand, the cyclopaedic eyes
Detecting sewage in our feeble currents;
Loud voices, too, the horns come down in torrents.
Dampened, we drift into appointed pools.
Remember that we are a pair of fools

And hence perhaps the cringing
Blurting fear
When first we march, or they march us, into here
With walls all diligently painted green,
Gloating like Machiavelli. We have seen
Strait-jackets if we wrestle, a padded cell
Private and warm and comfortable as hell.
Years, slander, the canary’s field of motion;
Enough? Row on, please God we strike an ocean.
Today, this hour, our river’s widening;
I am with you, and I fear … let us both sing.

Author’s Prologue
(from A Drum for Ben Boyd)

Through the cock-crow scuffle and tremor Ben Boyd comes striding;
This is his world now—one thought’s a drum for Ben Boyd.
This is his life: the churned-up light and the dust,
A tattered-scrap of life in the cubicles
Of memory with moths of forgetfulness,
Now and then out for an airing in the tangent flash
Of an old man’s yarn, some yellow newsprint unearthed,
Or the dregs of a reminiscence at Twofold Bay.
You and I, surgeons with scathing knives of perspective,
May watch the Present, the second dissolution
Piercing his fibres, draining his face of feature,
And his groping, luminous eye fading, drying out.

Far under our blazing barracks of the sun
Where only the spent rains sink out of memory
And bone grapples bone in uncouth heraldry,
One man’s soul scatters its weathering fragments.
Shreds of laurel crumble in the brains of friends;
Hooked barbs of venom rust with an enemy;
Perhaps the true balance lies with some quiet woman
Who will not shriek accusations to struggle through
The choking green smoke of the grass; nor will her love
Flicker and throb from the smoulder of fine words.

All who met this man mangled a shadow;
Seized on some trophy, brush of a fleet quarry;
And he whose arm was longest and flourished most
Threw signs on History, set the clock of rumour,
Though all that he held was a tremor, a half-truth,
And the cunning essence had twisted away and escaped him.

No plough probes deeply enough to question dust;
No power claps palate and lips to gnawed concavities;
For earth’s tenacious silence locks these up.
I follow charts of guesswork, shape a cloud
Formless, unplotted, rotten with endless change
And the sky’s blue mockery plummeting through its heart.

Yet truth itself is a mass of stops and gaps.

The excerpts from Francis Webb’s poems are from Collected Poems: Francis Webb, edited by Toby Davidson (UWA Publishing, 2011)

Oliver Miller hails from Sydney Australia and has recently completed a Masters in Arts of the Screen at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, with research focused on the convergence of multi-mediality within film. He has led an eclectic career as a filmmaker, cello player, pianist, composer, arranger, sound engineer, music producer, antique restorer, and photographer, and is a co-founder of the improvising ensembles The NOISE string quartetAmphibious and Bungarribee. Over the last nine years, Oliver has worked closely with composer Georges Lentz on String Quartet(s), a 7- hour work for pre-recorded string quartet to be permanently played in the Australian outback in the Cobar Sound Chapel, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt. The CSC has recently been awarded a $200,000 grant by the NSW government to proceed with construction.

Early 2019 saw the completion of Electric, a 23-minute short film focused on the world’s first experiments with shock therapy in Italy 1938. It draws its unique text from a radio-play by Francis Webb, Australia’s great genius of poetry. Electric is currently in submission to major international film festivals. Oliver has also worked closely with a number of director’s composing music for films.

More information on Oliver’s films, music and photographic work can be found here.