I grew up among storytellers. Without many books in our house, I learnt the rhythm of words, often in a language I didn’t understand. In my parents’ lives, so much happened by word of mouth. Stories spread from Switzerland to their home town in the Italian Alps about the ships travelling to the land of opportunity called Australia. Word spread around town about men leaving and what their letters home said. The Valtellina was very poor – a valley locked in icy remoteness where seasonal migration to work in Switzerland and Germany had been happening for hundreds of years. The journey to Australia was like stepping into a story of hope, where you could finally earn enough money to save. Men made the journey to escape conscription, fascism, and poverty – hoping to earn enough to get ahead.
Word spread about good farming land in the South West. After time in the Goldfields or on the Woodline, Italian migrants drifted South where the soil was rich in potential and rather than take their savings home to their families, they bought land, something you only inherited in the old country. Slowly a small community of people from the Valtellina clustered onto old Group Settlement properties around Pemberton – names like De Campo, Omodei, Della Vedova, Moltoni, della Franca.
By the time I was born, the community had established its rituals. Church on Sunday, then bread from the baker on the way home. Sunday lunch was always a special meal: roast or risotto, just us or together with cousins if there was an occasion. After the Sunday siesta, pi∫ulìn in dialect, families would visit each other. And the stories began. Either while playing cards, or over coffee and home-made sausage, bread and cheese, wonderful tales were told, in the musical rhythms of the Valtellinese dialect.
Everyone wanted to be Australian; my brothers and sisters wanted to “fit in”. They all spoke English to me. The dialect was a guttural song I couldn’t sing. I knew idioms and swear words, but I couldn’t converse. So on the Sunday afternoons when I wasn’t mucking around with my cousins, I was sitting listening to the stories in dialect. I knew when to be anxious, I knew when to laugh, I knew when to nod in agreement, simply by the melody and rhythm of the incomprehensible words. The Valtellinese dialect is full of hard sounds, but when they come together in story there is a characteristic melody. Italian, in all its forms, is spoken with an energy in the mouth and the heart that is strongly melodic. I can close my eyes and hear it still – the patter and rumbling of the dialect in the cosy kitchens of my childhood village.
My nonna never learned to speak much English. When I stayed at her house we often resorted to sign language. When there was more than one nonna in the room, the dialect galloped along again, with me chasing it, recognising odd words before drifting off to play with cousins who were never too far away.
There were a lot of weddings. Here again, the spoken word held me. It was riveting enough to see the men so far removed from their paddocks and dressed in suits. But to see them standing to give a toast, was an education. They all spoke charismatically and with a clear structure to their words, without notes, and in English. Every speech had its rhythm.
The sound of poetry for me was enriched by our school performances of choral poetry throughout Primary and High School. Once a week we stood together in rows and learnt, then recited poems, mimicking the intonation and rhythm of our teacher. By the time the examiner arrived to hear our performance we were experts at when to speak quietly, when to hammer out the rhythm and when to add drama to the words. Every year we learnt a Paterson poem, and then many from the English canon. I think even the boys in class tolerated the exercise, and surely we all remember many of the memorable lines. Like singing in a choir, the joy of many voices reciting together is something you never forget.
In High School I studied a subject called Speech and Drama. We had the most inspirational teacher. Sister Elizabeth taught everything from Physics to Literature, but Speech and Drama was her love. She not only taught me the mechanics of phonetics so that I could begin to hear the different sounds of all the languages around me, but she taught me how to look for the meaning of a poem and put that into any oral reading of it.
Sister Elizabeth gave me a love of the traditional expression of the poetic. But it was just an extension of the way the people around me expressed their lives and their experiences. From the stories and conversations in dialect, to the wedding speeches, perhaps even the sermons in church, the sounds of the spoken word have been a mesmerising hum buzzing beneath the poems that I am now creating.
Josephine Clarke is a member of the Voicebox collective and Out of the Asylum Writers’ Group. She has had poetry and short stories published in Australian journals including Westerly, Cordite and Southerly. Her work was featured in the ABR’s States of Poetry WA, series 2. Her first collection of poetry, Recipe for Risotto, was published by UWA Press in 2020.