Writings / Reviews

Fiction & Poetry Reviews

Michèle Rackham

Two Hemispheres

by Nadine McInnis

London, ON: Brick Books, 2007
95 pp. $18.00

Nadine McInnis’s Two Hemispheres is a heart-wrenchingly captivating collection of poetic portraits narrating the private histories of ten, nameless women from the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum (SCLA), and documenting the author’s personal struggle with depression. An accomplished poet and literary critic, McInnis treats her subjects with a careful, honest, and unaffected style; her vivid images and intuitive rhythm breathe life into both the photographs she expatiates and her own tale of sadness and struggle. Despite a rather banal and borderline didactic start, Two Hemispheres proves its worth as a challenging and brilliant exploration of the way history and memory can be either the threads holding subjectivity together, or the loose ends enabling it to come apart.

This latest collection of poems was inspired by an exhibit on photography and science at the National Gallery of Canada that McInnis attended back in 1997. The show included a series of photographs of women patients from the SCLA originally taken in the 1850s by Dr. Hugh W. Diamond, a Medical Superintendent at the asylum in Surrey England. McInnis was struck by the fact that, although the women in Diamond’s photographs were identified by nothing other than the medical disorders (one could assume) they suffered from – “chronic puerperal mania,” “anorexic hysteria,” “paranoid mania,” etc. – the “full body, poses, gently lit, allow[ed] the subject’s character to shine through” (87). During her own bout with depression beginning in 2001, the photographs haunted McInnis and she felt forced to grapple with them in verse. The sepia images of the SCLA women are reproduced in Two Hemispheres in black and white by way of “connect[ing] her personal story to theirs” (87).

The shared experience of mental illness becomes the dominant topic of Two Hemispheres, which suggests that the title refers directly to the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Indeed, the brain and its binary chambers are explicitly discussed in poems like “A trial in mesmerism” and “Loss of reason”; but numerous dualisms persist throughout the book. The dichotomy of reason vs. passion, the motifs of presence and absence, and the tension between past and present are just a few of the “hemispheres” explored by McInnis. Even the poet’s wanderings between the public sufferings of the SCLA women – whose portraits were hung in a 19th century asylum ward, and in the National Gallery of late twentieth century Canada – and the personal suffering of the poetic persona exemplify the layers of meaning evoked in the book’s title.

In addition to these fascinating perspectival shifts, one of McInnis’s great achievements in Two Hemispheres is her use of rhythm to communicate the physical and emotional turmoil of mental illness. A couple of lines from the poem “Awakening Cures” – in which the poet writes of the many elixirs, potions, and therapeutic treatments meant to cure the mentally ill – are exemplary of this skill: “the healer’s hand on the thigh, / the healer’s tongue in the mouth, / surgery to remove the Stone of Madness / from the head, from the chest, from the belly, / from behind the eye, from the genitals, / an induced coma, induced wakefulness, / icy water dripping for hours / on the immobilized forehead” (54). The poet establishes an iambic anapestic trimeter that subsequently collapses under the trauma of the healer’s inappropriate acts. The ensuing mishmash of metrical mayhem reflects the dizzying effects of trauma and the many (and often unhelpful) treatments meant to alleviate them. To highlight the emotional frustration of such an experience, the poet has used anaphoric phrases to ground her rhythmical shifts. These stylistic techniques help create an atmosphere of hopelessness and circularity that support the poem’s semantics.

Many of McInnis’s images are equally effective in the way they capture the weight and crippling effects of mental illness. In “Anguish Passing on to Despair,” the speaker characterizes the physical impact of her depression as a rapid aging process: “The crow on the curb growing more bold, its eye / reflecting the garden, my bent form, / frost-withered, miniaturized, /a blackened crone bent beneath too many griefs.” The image of the crow, a symbol and harbinger of death, and the image of the blackened crone reflected in the bird’s eye powerfully communicate the darkness and heaviness of the speaker’s ailment. McInnis has an impressive knack for building images one on top of the other as she does in “Anguish Passing on to Despair,” and she peppers this visual architecture brilliantly throughout her text.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Two Hemispheres, there are a few disruptive missteps in style and technique. One worth pointing out is the introductory poem “A Perfect and Faithful Record.” An awkwardly prosaic and seemingly forced piece, it does not do the rest of the collection justice. It reads as an unneeded explanation of the poet’s journey. “Move in more closely,” writes McInnis, “/ press your face / against the museum case, and you’ll see” (12). But does the reader really need these directives to understand McInnis’s project? The helpful preface on the photographs and a clearly written “Afterword” are sufficiently illuminating in my opinion.

Born in Belleville and presently living in Ottawa, McInnis has published six books, including works of short fiction, poetry, and a book-length collection of essays on the poetry of Dorothy Livesay (Poetics of Desire: Turnstone Press, 1994). Her writing has been nominated for a number of awards, including the Ottawa Book Award and the CBC literary Award. Two Hemispheres, in fact, was short listed for the Pat Lowther poetry Award and the 2007 Lampman-Scott Award. In spite of its rather shaky start, I found Two Hemispheres to be full of sharp images and a sparkling poetic sensibility. The poet has not only offered a creative and interesting premise for her collection, but she has also delivered a wonderful selection of poems about the power of memory and the terrifying beauty of the human mind.

About The Author


Michèle Rackham is a doctoral candidate in the English department at McGill University, Montreal. She currently holds a doctoral Canada Graduate Scholarship from SSHRC. Her area of specialization is Canadian literature, and she is presently researching the relationships between Canada’s Modernist poets and visual artists and the intersections between their poetry and paintings.

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