At the Ottawa launch of Two Hemispheres, poet Nadine McInnis explained to a good sized gathering of colleagues, family and admirers that she was generally more satisfied with the visual presentation of her poems than she was with the impact they made at readings. She has written six other books that include short stories and critical work as well as poetry, and need not have worried about the reception she was about to receive as she was evidently among friends. However, her comment was probably not prompted by performance anxiety. As I listened to her clear, deliberate delivery, I began to sense what she was really driving at. Something seemed to be missing from the oral version although the poems were enunciated with impeccably articulate phrasing. After the review copy arrived, I soon understood more fully what she meant by her remarks and that I had noticed at the reading.
Throughout the reading, the precision of the words gave each of the poems a prosaic patina, a restrained, factual rootedness that might have derived from clinical notes. This patina remains with a silent reading but becomes almost transparent taking on a sombre ironic aspect while the ominous swell of an obstinate inner irrationality spreads over the page. The major conceit or construct of the book is in fact much harder to appreciate with only an oral reading. The collection is a complex interwoven structure of dualities beginning with the title. The poet tells us through the many threads binding this book together that keeping the Two Hemispheres connected equals sanity, severing them, madness.
At least that’s how I read it. For evidence let me illustrate with these lines from “Miasma Theory”:
desire that cannot be satisfied, despair
at the emptiness of the night sky,
bush fires in the nervous system
lit by the tinder of tension,
a fever-bearing fog, lightning strike here,
then there, a miasma severing connections
between thought and feeling, drifting continents
frozen in sinister blue,
or lost in tropical depressions.
Miasma theory is the now discredited belief that the bad air produced by decay causes communicable disease. In evoking this archaic notion, the poet reminds us of how speculative and vague our ideas about the origins of mental illness still are. As she explains in her afterword, this book was prompted by her descent into and recovery from her own very painful depression earlier in the decade. It helps to remember the right brain left brain theory that roughly allocates the one hemisphere to thought and the other to emotion and recall also that an MRI brain scan captures hemispheric activity and inactivity in vivid reds and blues.
Nadine McInnis main external inspiration for Two Hemispheres was a series of ten full body sepia photographs of Victorian female inmates of a British mental institution of the period. These portraits are reprinted in the book after surviving without any accompanying diagnostic notation save words or phrases cryptically describing the presumed condition of each subject. The women were patients of the photographer who was also the Medical Superintendent of Women at the Surrey County lunatic asylum where they were housed. In capturing their likenesses on film, Dr. Hugh W. Diamond accorded full dignity to his evidently disturbed patients. McInnis was struck by this human quality missing from most medical photographs of the day.
The two hemisphere motif is carried through a series of dualities beginning with the physical division of the brain and proceeding through the splits between thought and feeling, mental clarity and confusion, danger and asylum, freedom and bondage, tenderness and violence, public and private, hope and despair, prose and poetry. The collection likewise separates into the relatively detached portraits that accompany the ten black and white nineteenth century photographic portraits of women inmates of the somewhat confessional verses that grapple with the poet’s own painful experience.
How painful did it get? Strong words like the following about her wearying regime of questionable treatments are truly difficult to read:
There seems to be more sorcery
Than science here, sweet, white and blank
On the tongue, the smallest
Wafers of the pettiest gods:
One makes you cry for 8 days
One makes you shake,
One makes you terrified
And burns your skin with a fiery rash,
One makes your head rage with blinding light,
One destroys your appetite, one makes you ravenous,
One gives you violent, exhausting nightmares,
One makes your heartbeat careen off the walls,
One leaves you on your knees crawling to the bathroom,
One rings in your ears like angry simmering bees
And one, thankfully, one
Offers fleeting intervals of calm.
The poet first saw the patient portraits at a gallery showing ten years ago, but it was her intervening descent into depression that persuaded her to imagine what the doctor’s notes and, of course, the original interior monologues of the inmates themselves might have resembled. The picture preceding “Nymphomania” for example is only suggestive of the succeeding lines although also a very plausible accompaniment. Regardless, the word picture they prompt is compellingly vivid reminding us of our abiding primal fear of the insane.
If she can’t have his flesh one way,
she’ll have it another: gouged, licked, stroked,
bitten, stabbed. He doesn’t sense the rattling
of her discontent, arms coiled around her ribcage,
ready to strike. He doesn’t see her teeth
parting, her mouth readying to open wider
than he can ever imagine before she swallows him
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exploration of what we used to call madness in less enlightened times is the way its structure and juxtapositions force the reader to interpret it. As the poet learned to interpret the pictorial case studies through her own nightmarish journey, so we begin to make probing comparisons that frame then expand our own understanding. By moving from poem to poem or from picture to verse, from the poet’s own experience to her divination of what the portraits are saying to her, the reader feels the build up of an anxious tension. This tension fascinates and draws the reader into the core of the work as it generates empathy for those seemingly imprisoned within it.
Two Hemispheres is physically well designed and crafted in an understated but sophisticated format that would appeal to anyone who loves to hold a good piece of reading in his or her hands. The paper, for instance, has a rich woven feel to it. Likewise the prose elements, including the essential afterword and the brief preamble to the illustrations are important contributions to the aesthetic balance of this work.
The multiple dualities of Two Hemispheres amplify the mounting tension as the reader begins to absorb the contradictions the agonizing disconnections force observer and patient to share. Not all of these stresses will be resolved and the subjective pain of the voices that inhabit this book has its disturbing if more objective correlative. The author does more than just make us understand and empathize. Her tense diction works aesthetically too. I enjoyed reading the poems and sharing my time with these well developed vignettes.
A few ragged moments or structural shortcomings in the poetic design are occasionally puzzling. However, these impressions are quickly overcome with continued reading. I would have enjoyed more of the “eureka” moments powerful commanding images provide, but that is not this poet’s style which is more narrative and allusive. The monumental challenge of creating a readable scaffold that neither stifles nor capitulates to the deliberate emulation of dark confusion is the demanding task she set herself. It’s rewarding to see how close she comes to her goal.