Skin Painting by Elizabeth Hodgson

A few weeks back, as part of National Poetry Week we were encouraged to buy Australian poetry, so I got online (as I live nowhere near a bookshop that sells decent poetry) and bought a few collections.

One collection, ‘skin painting‘ by Elizabeth Hodgson, totally blew me away with its deeply evocative and moving poetry. This says a lot, because I have read a number of modern collections by so called famous Australian poets that leave me cold and wondering what all the fuss is about (I won’t name names but it’s no-one from the blogosphere πŸ˜‰ ).

Skin painting‘ was winner of the David Unaipon Award and was highly commended for the Anne Elder Award 2008.

Elizabeth Hodgson is a fair-skinned aboriginal woman (Wiradjuri woman) who lives in NSW. She was taken from her parents at a very young age (as were so many Aboriginal childen – the Stolen Generations) and placed in a home for fair-skinned Aboriginal children in Sydney.

The poetry in this collection tells her story:

my story cannot be painted onto a canvas – it is a skin painting.

The book begins with poems that portray her life as a little girl, alone and abused, in an institution that identifies her by number; to her development years later into a strong and self-reliant adult.

The poems are personal in such a way that allows outsiders to the Aboriginal experience to gain an accessible viewpoint. Basically the brutal honesty and ‘sting in tail’ nature of the poetry had me in tears for much of the reading and I have been going over and over many of the poems in my head (always a sign that a poem is good).

One poem outlines how she again lives with her dark skinned father when she turns fifteen. Here is an extract:

‘he is a stranger to me
he is sober, respectable, employed
he has a new wife; she is white.

I do not know him; I search his face
trying to find myself in his eyes, his skin, his hair.
My arm is pale against his black skin.
I ask him why; he dies before he finds an answer.’ ( p. 40 skin painting)

This poem is heartbreaking on so many levels – that her father chooses to become like the ‘respectable’ white man to get access to his daughter, how it changes him so he is unrecognisable; how it is all too late.

Wouldn’t it be great if ‘skin painting‘ could be widely available in Australian schools, so that young people could gain a greater understanding of some of the issues surrounding the Stolen Generations?

I have bought 3 extra copies of ‘skin painting’ as I would love the book to gain a wider audience. If you want a free copy you can email me (gbryden at bigpond dot com) – first in, best dressed!

Skin painting‘ was first published in 2008 by University of Queensland Press.