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Hand to Hand

by Nadine McInnis

Nadine McInnis’s poetic project is to break through “the shell / that separates us” and reveal the interpenetration of ordinary human lives. This is a vernacular poetry that searches for the links that bind us as human beings. McInnis’s poems investigate not only the bonds, but the fissures in our social network: instances of our injustice, our inhumanity, our betrayal of the natural world that sustains us.

The series “Famous Moments” contains six sections that compare and contrast moments in the lives of celebrities with those of the private individuals upon whom McInnis’s poems focus. At the same time that Princess Diana gives birth to the heir to the throne in presumed luxury, the poem’s speaker, herself pregnant, drives a neighbour over washboard roads in an ancient car to a considerably less cushy, but no less miraculous, birth. McInnis’s empathy is not limited to the familiar; in “Almost Strangers,” the second section of the book, she enters into the tragic lives of those whom war has savaged: civilians in Kurdistan, soldiers in the Gulf War.

Despite such ambition and such honourable intentions, however, the assertion of parallel, of analogy, is often strained. Readers may end up asking themselves what, beyond the obvious contrast between privilege and hardship, the connection indeed is between Princess Diana and the ordinary woman. In “Mothers Make Do,” the correlation between dropping bombs and giving birth seems merely reductive, the irony altogether too heavy-handed. This is a problem of language as much as concept. In many instances, most notably the book’s opening poem, “Over the Falls,” the language fails to rescue the vernacular from simple cliché. When McInnis writes and thinks with greater focus, as she does, for example in “Insomnia” and “Good Advice,” as well as in many of the poems of the book’s final section, her human and humane message comes across far more convincingly, and these feisty, opinionated poems succeed in connecting to the reader with much greater force.