Getting under Dorothy's Skin

Poet Dennis McDermott

It has taken Aboriginal poet Dennis McDermott 56 years – his whole life – finally to get under Dorothy's skin, to fully understand the mother who gave him strategies to make his way through the white man's world.

With an Irish-Scottish father and an Aboriginal mother, growing up in the 1950s in Tamworth in New South Wales meant conforming to conservative white values because, as McDermott (pictured) recalls, Aborigines were invisible.

Aside from a few families in the town whose children attended the local school, many lived in fringe camps on the town's outskirts or on missions tucked a hundred or more kilometres away. In time McDermott found the town claustrophobic and reacted against its conformist culture.

With few external local connections, Dennis looked inward and mapped a cultural journey to his roots and discovered the history of his mother's people, the Gadigal-Eora, who had lived in the Sydney region.

McDermott acknowledges his late father's Irish-Scottish background but rejoices in his own Aboriginality and prides himself on his hybridity. It is his Aboriginality that burns brightly through his first published poetry anthology, Dorothy's Skin, which was launched recently by Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Master of Arts in Writing.

When interviewed, McDermott articulates his words with a precision that's easy on the ear, a legacy of childhood elocution lessons and the eisteddfods where he recited poetry – routes that Dorothy believed would lead him to a safe haven in a white world that was hostile to Aboriginal people.

He communicates fluently about the burning issues of identity that underpin his multi-layered poetry and the concerns of Aboriginal society that he encounters in his life and in his role as a psychologist and Lecturer in Indigenous health in the University of New South Wales' Medical Faculty.

The science of psychology drew him because over the years he needed to understand himself, and in that personal and professional process he has met Aboriginal families and carers coping with death in custody, life crises, divisive political and emotional issues such as the stolen generation, and troubles undermining his community. "It's a journey of discovery and you learn from people all the way," he says.

He sees who he is with clarity — initially an educated young man who threatened his working-class peers with his polysyllabic vocabulary, a contradiction that shaped the educated yet colloquial tone of his poetry.

His poetic voice grew and changed especially during his years at UTS. "At first my writing was too dense, too coded and turgid," he recalls. "It was a humbling experience to take criticism on board but the writing program gave me the framework and feedback to teach myself to write. I allowed myself to be influenced by poets like Tomas Transtroemer, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney and then their influences dissolve and your own voice comes through."

Dorothy's Skin is the culmination of a lifetime's infatuation with literature and a love affair with the spoken word, which he views as the performance side of poetry. At the book's recent launch, McDermott's 87-year-old mother, the eponymous Dorothy, wasn't there, much to McDermott's relief.

He read the anthology's last poem, "Dorothy's Skin", and was flooded with emotion. "By the time I got to the last line, I lost it," he says. "It deals with such personal issues around identity. Although it's about my mother's experience, it's about so many Aboriginal people's experience, having to hide or be alienated from who you are to survive.

"In Aboriginal poetry there has been such a vein of trauma, which then informs a political response in poetry. I'm not a philosopher but as a psychologist and poet I've been able to comment on that vein from my perspective."

There is another vein, one of confidence and optimism, emerging from Aboriginal communities. McDermott speaks with quiet pride of the current cohort of 55 Aboriginal medical students and 90 doctors, who clearly know who they are.

"But there should be 1000 medical students, and part of my job is to encourage more Koori and Murri students through medicine," he says. "Occasionally you know you've made a difference and that gives you new understanding."

Dorothy's Skin, published by Wollongong University's Five Islands Press, is available at Gleebooks, Glebe Point Road; UNSW Coop Bookshop; or email Professor Ron Pretty, kpretty@uow.edu.au

Kinky One

My brother boxes school bus shadows,

keeps me from the point

of the in-and-out elbow.

I ask mum to bring home a straight comb

I could uncurl myself,

the kinky one.

Gone tender-tipped, yet dug-in

like an echidna disturbed –

only spikes showing – a big boy

emerges, nights, to forage verandah dark

for the milkman's promise, steals

lacy glimpses, learns to love to watch.

The grown man, thick-skinned,

dreams such puzzles as

having his spleen removed.

My dog works a raw-hide bone

day in, day out,

hoping to loosen the knot.

By Dennis McDermott

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