Friday, October 16, 2020

Evan Nicholls on Poetry by Anne Whitehouse

Review: Outside From the Inside (Dos Madres Press, 2020) by Anne Whitehouse. Loveland, OH. 122 pages. $19.00 U.S. ISBN: 978-1-948017-96-1.

Anne Whitehouse’s new book of poetry, Outside From the Inside, is a many-legged thing. Maybe, it’s something like Whitman’s spider, launching “filament, filament, filament, out of itself.” Or maybe, that is an overly dramatic comparison. Whatever description you like, what you need to know is that this book revolves around the body and its place. Also, the body and its person. Whitehouse explores these topics through a handful of forms – free verse, the odd cento, more – offering a generous 95 pages of poetry.

Of course, there are plenty of details I found myself savoring throughout the collection. Always, I love a book with good sectioning (Whitehouse divides her work into four parts). I also admired Outside’s embrace of often-times clinical language – this occurring in the first section, “Tides of the Body.” In one poem, the poet lauds the anconeus and popliteus muscles as if they were Greek heroes. Above all, though, my interest was piqued by Whitehouse’s forays into persona.

The second section of Outside, entitled “It Wasn’t A Hallucination,” (one of my favorite titles) is where the bulk of this work happens. In the book, Whitehouse inhabits the voices of Carlos Santana and the prolific sculptor Isamu Noguchi, among others. This last instance is the title poem of the book.

As someone with a real soft spot for Noguchi’s work, it was a pleasant surprise to find his voice inhabited inside. Moreover, the poem is an epistolary gem – a reimaging of a letter from Noguchi to Man Ray. [Editor: Whitehouse explains the genesis of the poem in an interview.] But – maybe this is of note – I also began reading it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Persona requires a great amount of care: it is never not a balancing act. Soon enough, though, I found “Outside From the Inside” to be full of care. It is also timely, placing Noguchi back in the Poston camp in Arizona during Japanese American internment, reminding us now of the current detention camp crisis at the border.

Considering Noguchi’s work, too, it becomes easy to draw conclusions on how the artist’s contemplative style may have influenced Whitehouse in piecing this collection together. Lines like “Here, there is a memory / of ancient places, / wind and sun, endlessness, / where I came from, / and where I will go. ...” align with both Noguchi’s expression of wind, flight and movement as well as the core mood of the book – a poetics wrapped up in being placed by moments. Emphasizing this paradoxy – in the sense that moments always seem to pick up and move on – “Outside From the Inside” ends on a nicely juxtaposed note, placing the small alongside the large: “Oh, for an orange, / Oh, for the sea.” Whitehouse borrows these lines from the real Noguchi letter. It is in details like this where I think Whitehouse is most successful.

Other poems worth mentioning from the book include “Salt-Rising Bread”, which tracks the life of an ancient recipe, and “Koko and Robin”, which is an imagining of the relationship between the late Robin Williams and Koko, the gorilla who was famous for her command of American Sign Language (ASL). But, maybe what will appeal to some readers the most – especially casual readers of poetry – are Outside’s quieter, brief poems (of which there are plenty). “Balm” is one of these.

In the days of Instagram poetry, it’s comforting to come across short poems that deal their cards quickly but don’t leave you feeling cheated. While it was not always my specific taste, Outside From the Inside never left me feeling cheated. Instead, a little more placed, on “a gray road like a fallen ribbon.”

- Evan Nicholls is a graduate of James Madison University and has poetry appearing or forthcoming in Guesthouse, Sporklet, DIAGRAM, Hobart and Yalobusha Review, among others. He was raised in the peach, fox, horse and wine country of Fauquier County, Virginia. He tweets at @nicholls_evan.

Copyright©2020 by Evan Nicholls. All Rights Reserved.