Walking Home: the Poetry of Dennis McDermott

Dorothy’s Skin, by Dennis McDermott

Five Islands Press, 2003.

For eighteen months now I have been trying to move house. You wouldn’t think the process should take so long, but it has — three hundred and sixty-three days from the first showing of our semi to settlement. In that time, three houses we wanted to buy were sold. Since the settlement, another three houses that we had lusted after proved to be too expensive. A week ago we finally found a house that we could afford and made an offer. As I write this, I am waiting for the vendor to sign the contract. But there is a snag, an argument about who gets the commission because we initially saw the house through another agent. The process has been very unsettling — all this uncertainty just to find a place you can call home.

Home is an issue that is explored in Dennis McDermott’s first collection of poetry, Dorothy’s Skin. Not so much home as a place, though the physical world is carefully and accurately rendered, but home as the desire to belong, the need to feel accepted amongst family, friends, work colleagues and in the community. The biographical note tells us that McDermott grew up in Tamworth, New South Wales, and that like many Aboriginal Australians, McDermott’s mob is ‘from here and there, Sydney and Donegal’.

More than twenty-five years ago, Les Murray wrote a review of the poetry of Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis. He set out to say some ‘hard things about black writers who attempt to write in English.’ He argued that premature acclaim had been given to some Indigenous writers who were really little more than publicists. He noted, rightly I think, that this impulse is liberal, but enormously patronising. Murray suggested that when a ‘truly first rate Aboriginal poet appeared’ it would be apparent because of the quality of their work, rather than their identity.

The issues that Murray raised in that review are still with us. There is a tendency amongst readers to want to identify an ‘authentic’ Aboriginal voice, and this concern with authenticity can be a terrible burden for an Indigenous poet or writer. Is there only one authentic Aboriginal voice or are there many possible voices? Dennis McDermott has identified this as a problem for Indigenous writers, this tendency to associate authenticity with rawness and rage, with a call to the barricades, with the poem as a molotov cocktail to be hurled into the comfortable lounge rooms of white denial and apathy. There is a place for political poetry, for what’s now called the poetry of witness, and I’m all for it, but the subject matter alone does not necessarily make for a good poem. It’s not enough to have your heart in the right place. Poetry has to work as art, as literature. McDermott navigates this difficult and complex terrain admirably. In the end he deserves to be read and taken seriously as a poet, not because of his identity, though that is undoubtedly a part of his work, but because of his art. Dorothy’s Skin is a fine achievement, a book of poems where again and again McDermott speaks with a compelling voice and tenor, where he finds an appropriate form for his concerns, insights and experiences.

The first poem in Dennis McDermott’s collection, Dorothy’s Skin, reveals a natural aptitude for poetic form. “Kinky One” is a self-portrait which ranges from a boy asking his mum for a straight comb so ‘I could uncurl myself, /the kinky one’ to a dog who works a raw-hide bone ‘day-in, day-out, /hoping to loosen the knot.’ The strategic repetition of a key image — in this case an attempt to straighten curls or knots — is a common technique in a McDermott poem and one of the ways he demonstrates his feeling for form. The tone is playful and already there is an interest in the surface of things, whether it be skin or the image that evokes the defensive mechanisms adolescents use to survive: ‘dug-in/ like an echidna disturbed — / only spikes showing.’

McDermott is a Sydney poet, but it is a particular region of Sydney that he describes most vividly and sensuously — the Blue Mountains. He conveys the amazing light of the mountains, ‘the train/ runs Woodford ridge like a viaduct through a sunset sky’; the characteristics of the residents, ‘there’s the Southern Cross/ hanging over the escarpment like half/ the population here’; and most noticeably, the abundant bird life.

“Late Night Brubeck” presents an evocative description of Leura in fog at night. The speaker of the poem is returning home from the railway station, listening to Dave Brubeck on his headphones. Music is another common theme that flows and burbles through this collection and here it leads to self-reflection, as ‘It takes merely/ a few bars for things to turn/ completely inside out.’ Appropriately perhaps, this poem won’t sit still, it is alive with history, culture, the physical world and the unexpected riffs of jazz improvisation. We are reminded of the 1950s bushfire that swept through the mountains and, wryly of ‘Blaxland, Lawson/ and the other bloke.’ Here is a poem that twists and turns, that takes the reader on an unexpected journey.

There’s a famous essay by the American poet Robert Bly, “Looking for Dragon Smoke” in which Bly decries the deadness of much contemporary poetry and praises the Bolivian poet Cesar Vallejo for his psychic energy, his unpredictability. Bly’s term for what Vallejo does is ‘leaping’. According to Bly, the energy and unpredictability in the poem comes from a leap from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind. Put simply, leaping is the ability to associate fast, to travel long distances between associations and Bligh argues that leaping is what makes poetry exciting. Much of McDermott’s poetry leaps about, it is always turning, always taking you in surprising and satisfying directions.

Without the reader knowing it is coming, “Late Night Brubeck” ends with a graphic description of two men caught in a bushfire. And then the poem opens out again, bringing everything together:

… Unlucky,

unlovable Lithgow, exhausted shaft,

a useless, toothless hole, rimmed by

exploding gums, just forty crow kilometres

from where I walk home through mist

and stars and music, through country just like me:

a hide for temporary water.

What I love about this ending is not only the complete absence of romanticising in the description of Lithgow, but the way the poet trawls back to himself walking home at night, and ends by subjecting himself to the same clear, penetrating gaze. Like Brubeck, McDermott knows how to improvise, how to weave fog and footsteps together, so that as a reader you feel as if the poem has actually taken you somewhere, has reached its unknown destination.

There are other poems in the first part of this collection that work in a similar way: “Fairy Mushroom Season”, “The Blue Line” and most impressively “The Bowerbird”. “The Blue Line” uses the line painted on the road for the Olympic marathon as a starting point for a journey out into the world, while “The Bowerbird” is structured around the description of a satin bowerbird’s nest. The richness of bird-life is beautifully evoked: ‘tawny frogmouths, nestling/ face-to-face in a bare tree fork’ or ‘currawongs that trail decaying whoops/ over sunset trees’. Yet this poem is not a traditional pastoral, but a narrative that describes one relationship breaking-up and another one beginning.

“The Bowerbird” begins with a flashback to the speaker and Gina dancing: ‘we rubbed together like two sticks.’ It can be naïve to read the ‘I’ of the poem as always coinciding with the poet, but this book encourages you to read in this way. The speaker spends more time in Sydney where he works, cutting down on travelling, and eventually meeting and going out with Christine. This period of flux in relationships, and the uncertainty that it brings, would be familiar to many people. The bowerbird’s nest is a suitable metaphor for such messiness, and it is described as ‘a palace/ of brief events’ and ‘a trail of scrappy gems/ that crackles like the Milky Way.’

McDermott has a facility and preference for metaphor that is typical of much contemporary poetry, but he gets more out of his metaphors than many poets. His approach to metaphor is not unique — the American poet, Mark Doty works in a similar way — so that a poem’s metaphors are spun together into a web of connections and resonances. In “The Bowerbird” that wonderful description of scrappy gems crackling like the Milky Way is echoed in the speaker’s second meeting with Christine:

… We toast.

Only candle flicker, yet I’m aware of wine glass curves.

On the rim — like the daybreak world from space —

glass catches flame. When I drink,

I swallow sparks. Something rises up my spine.

 

These two images — the glass reflecting flame and the earth as seen from space — resonate with the earlier comparison of the bowerbird’s nest to the Milky Way. Other images in the poem are repeated so that they echo and bounce off each other in a similar manner, including skin, glass, gems, fire and eggs. The bowerbird’s nest itself is brought back for the ending: ‘There’s only/ bits and pieces, yet — from somewhere — / there’s the glimmer of a shimmering array.’ It’s the honesty that is refreshing and the way the poem dramatises confusion, ‘nothing’s whole, nothing’s together’, yet there is still hope, still beauty. This is one poem of contemporary life that deserves to be read and reread, one poem that will stay with me for a long time.

The middle section of Dorothy’s Skin is titled ‘court’ and contains four poems that tell the story of Dennis McDermott’s trial as a psychologist for professional misconduct. “Fairy Mushroom Season” has already prepared the way, when Dennis tells Mick, his friend and fellow therapist, that ‘my lover was once my client.’ It is clear from this poem that the personal relationship began after the professional relationship concluded and that Dennis McDermott is struggling to hang onto ‘the ineffable things: respect, reputation.’ The poems in ‘court’ fill out the rest of the story. There is a shift in poetic tone in this section, so that instead of circling an image and building a network of resonances from observation, description and reflection, we are thrown right into the drama.

The first poem “Psychologists” quotes the warning of the head of the investigating body: ‘You’ve got to watch these psychologists… They’re always/ trying to get into someone’s pants.’ The subject matter is the stuff of soap opera, as the second poem “Scarlet Woman” notes with its opening reference to The Young and the Restless. The reference to TV drama is appropriate, for the poem makes use of a reader’s natural curiosity, the desire to know what happened in the case. This use of dramatic techniques in poetry is welcome; generally there is not enough attention paid in contemporary poetry to engaging reader interest and maintaining it right to the end of the poem. A poem offers an experience to a reader, and if that experience involves mystery and suspense, as well as beautiful words, then so much the better.

McDermott alternates between different points of view in this section, much as a novelist might, giving us the perspective of the investigators, the young woman, the ex-husband and the accused. These poems reminded me of J.M Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning novel, Disgrace, except that Coetzee’s central character, David Lurie, is guilty, if unrepentant, of professional misconduct, while Dennis McDermott is innocent and deserves to be found so. The ex-husband seems to have made the initial complaint to the investigating body and four years later the appeal is still being heard. There’s a deft economy in McDermott’s rendering of the appeal process:

I realised, watching for the last time, that though

the body language behind the bench was black-robed Mr. Bean,

the smell was pure hanging judge.

Frustrated with the prospect that the issue still won’t be resolved, and that they won’t receive justice, McDermott and his partner decide to ‘pull the plug on the appeal.’ He describes his reaction with a compelling simplicity: ‘I went down a hole.’

McDermott deals with an important issue here, an issue that can wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people in our society. For many professionals who work in a helping role with other people, such as teachers, psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists and social workers, it is certainly the case that if mud is thrown — even if it is thrown wrongly or untruthfully — then some of it inevitably sticks. I have no desire to condone sexual harassment or abuse, but as a society we have to be aware that innocent people can be maliciously accused, and that an accusation itself can do untold damage. McDermott gets this point across in this short, powerful sequence.

These four poems do something that is not fashionable in much Australian poetry, in some circles it is even frowned upon — they deal with emotions as well as ideas. It is this concern with the heart as well as the head that gives the poems their power. McDermott makes the issues clear, but he also evokes sympathy for the defendants and anger at the system. The sequence provides no Hollywood ending, where the little guy triumphs against the multinational company, as in Erin Brockovich, but a timely reminder that the system does not always serve or protect individuals. McDermott’s final image where he falls down the plughole reminds one of Alice in Wonderland (Alice is evoked earlier in the collection), but here the nightmare journey is despairingly real, the consequences on-going. These are memorable poems written by a courageous poet.

The book’s last section begins with “Sexual Sin” and takes us to California, where Dennis and his partner, Mel, are driving, listening to music on a car radio and to an evangelist preaching about the dangers of desire. Surely there is a growing sub-genre of Australian poems set in cars, poems that recreate the experience of driving while listening to music. This is not surprising given how much time city people spend in their cars. Dorothy Porter’s “Driving too Fast” and Susan Hampton’s “Missa Solemnis” from White Dog Sonnets spring to mind. In this section, ‘the up train’, travelling becomes a frequent motif as McDermott sets poems in cars, trains and airplanes.

Another strong theme is racism and the challenges faced by Aboriginal people living in contemporary Australia. In “Borderline” a younger McDermott is pulled over by the cops after he crosses the Storey Bridge in Brisbane in a Kombi, ‘flaunting the white woman-lover — well, /wog’ who is sitting beside him. There’s much charm in the colloquial, even humorous way he narrates these events, but McDermott also knows how to pack a punch:

… — if I’d only known the place

right, I would have never even dared

to scrape my vegemite along the thin, square

white of Queen Street.

The use of vegemite, a cultural icon, but also derogatory slang for an Aborigine is a wonderful touch here, managing to reclaim the euphemistic insult and redirect at those who can freely travel along this stretch of Queen Street.

The second part of “Borderline” describes an incident at the Sydney airport where Dennis is detained by the ‘prematurely-uniformed young eyes’ of a customs’ officer. Mel seethes, not having had a lifetime’s experience of racism. Dennis can find no outlet for his anger, seizing a pair of sunglasses to protect himself from the racist gaze. Many of the poems in this book offer a sort of potted history of Australian racism, and the varied ways people have dealt with it.

In “Page Three Story” McDermott’s sister grins from The Mirror, heralded as the first Aborigine to win the City of Sydney eisteddfod. His mother, Dorothy, is not happy, citing ‘our honourable line of West Indian descent’, and asking for an apology. In the title poem “Dorothy’s Skin” McDermott dreams of introducing Dorothy to Oodgeroo, as they share the same ‘poise, eyes and Lindt-like/ skin’, as well both being ‘the funny-bugger with a steak knife, buried, a serrated intensity that/unsettled me’. This poem is a beautiful portrait of the poet’s mother, who at eighty-four, only now uses ‘the word “Aboriginal”’ to describe herself. Much of the social history that explains this reluctance is suggested in the poem, including the stolen generation and the racist violence faced by Indigenous men and women.

It’s hard to criticise this book. Sometimes I felt that McDermott’s characteristic repetitions weakened poems, such as the repeated use of a Christmas cracker image in “The British Exhibit”. There is a danger inherent in any strength and here the repetition seemed like a failure of imagination, rather than a broadening and opening up of resonances and meaning. Italics are overused, especially in a poem like “Mudgee Wine” where they seem to denote a kind of interior monologue that runs for stanzas, or in “The Blue Line”, where they emphasize dialogue unnecessarily. But these are mere quibbles. McDermott’s ending is often foreshadowed in his beginning, a cyclic technique that can be very satisfying. In “Scrap Heap” he begins and ends with a tree. It’s a unifying trope and an appropriate one, as the poem partly recounts his family tree, but the significance of the grandfather who has fallen from the tree and should get back up into it, was lost on me. Like the short story, the brevity of much poetry gives considerable weight to endings, and this ending seems to be just another detail, rather than an apt conclusion.

But this is not typical, for on the whole McDermott’s endings are skilful, witty and perfectly judged. “Dorothy’s Skin” ends with a reference to the Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ:

… Dorothy’s skin is so thick and yet so thin. Where can I find those red shoes

you simply click to teleport you home?

The red shoes don’t take you home even though you want them to, but McDermott’s poetry made me feel more at home, though, like him, I’m not really sure where that place is. I wouldn’t be able to pin it down. Dennis McDermott doesn’t deal in certainties, he faces up to difficult issues and experiences with a clear-eyed honesty, with openness and much humanity, and even at times with a palpable joy. Dorothy’s Skin left me feeling elated and humbled. I felt privileged; lucky to have bought the book and lucky to have read it. What more could you want from a book of poetry?

 

This essay won the inaugural BTG-Blue Dog Poetry Reviewing Competition and was  first published in Blue Dog, Vol 4, No 8, November 2005.