Review of Anne Whitehouse’s Outside From the Inside by Nancy Ludmerer

Anne Whitehouse’s moving new poetry collection, Outside from the Inside (Dos Madres Press, 2020), takes us on four journeys, each with its pains and losses, its accretions of insight and moments of joy. In the first section, we travel inside the body (Tides of the Body); in the second, we traverse geographical space and time (It Wasn’t an Hallucination); in the third, we look back in history (The Ancient World), and finally, we turn our gaze to the bracing beauty of the natural world (A Dog’s Life).

Whitehouse begins with the body and with the source of life—the breath, “shape-changer” and the blood, “circulating through arterial rivers in an endless loop.”

She introduces us (in the memorable Anconeus and Popliteus) to two small “triangular-shaped muscles,” the forgotten ones, outflanked and “overlaid by the big flashy muscles”:
………………….. . . anconeus
………………….at the back of the elbow,
………………….popliteus behind the knee . . .

With awe and tenderness, the poet races across a field, never forgetting how
………………….Modest little popliteus keeps
………………….our kneecaps tracking true.

She concludes:
………………….I place my other hand on my elbow
………………….and feel anconeus contract,
………………….and think how often the essential
………………….is small and hidden.

Tracking true and finding the essential in what is small and hidden are themes that permeate all four journeys in Outside from the Inside. So is the urgency of remembering, which becomes, in Whitehouse’s poetry, a moral imperative.

In the second section, we travel through geographical space and time: to Woodstock, for a concert, and in the collection’s title poem, to a World War II internment camp in Arizona. That poem, first published in Streetlight in 2018, channels the voice of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who in 1942 voluntarily joined imprisoned Japanese-Americans in the camp and experienced first-hand the deprivations of life there. Noguchi’s perceptions of time and history are confounded by his internment:
………………….Outside from the inside
………………….it seems history has taken flight
………………….and passes forever.

Yet, at the same time:
………………….Here, there is the memory
………………….of ancient places,
………………….wind and sun, endlessness,
………………….where I came from,
………………….and where I will go.

In After Fifty Years, An American Soldier Returns to My Lai, Whitehouse channels the voice of a soldier, who acknowledges that “[s]ome horrors cannot be expiated” and yet who “feel[s] a peace long-denied” watching children at play “with no burden of war.” Finally, in this section, she takes us to “Chiquitania, deep in the heart/of the Amazon basin.” This distant region takes center stage in Achalay (Rejoice), For Music is Euphoria of the Soul, a poem suffused with musical joy. Harking back to Anconeus and Popliteus, the poet finds truth in what is hidden or obscured. Five hundred years ago, she writes, the nomadic tribes
………………….. . . . learned to build instruments
………………….of native cedar and mahogany
………………….that sounded true and did not warp or crack.

The poet sings to the music of the Chiquitanos and the Guarayo:
………………….native words mixed with Spanish lyrics
………………….among the ten thousand compositions—
………………….operas, songs, cantatas, concertos—
………………….preserved in the church of Moxos
………………….long after the rest of the world
………………….had thought them lost.

In the third section, The Ancient World, Whitehouse continues to focus on literature and music that might have been lost but that, almost miraculously, has been preserved. In From the Cairo Genizah, Whitehouse catalogs the books, shopping lists, business records, marriage contracts, and letters hidden for centuries in an ancient Egyptian synagogue. She shows us the joy—eight hundred years later—of an old man in a library who touches with his own hands a letter by Maimonides, the twelfth century philosopher and Jewish sage:
………………….. . . he practically floated
………………….out the front door
………………….of the library on 122nd Street,
………………….walking as if propelled,
………………….with the gait of a young man,
………………….all the way downtown
………………….to Times Square.

With a light touch, Whitehouse gives new meaning to that New York landmark, Times Square. Like the works of other luminous poets, her poems speak one to the other. So we read, in a poem aptly titled From One Thing to Another:
………………….Somewhere on my property
………………….I buried time —
………………….by which I mean I lost my watch.
………………….It slipped off my wrist
………………….into the snowdrifts.
………………….. . . .
………………….as a swirling snowfall
………………….camouflaged my landmarks.

In My Grandmother Listens to Paul Robeson Recite Othello, Whitehouse demonstrates how art and music comfort us. Her grandmother sits alone and lonely in a leafless New York City garden. The grandmother, a stranger there, has come to be with her dying sister Anne.
………………….One cold evening, as stars
………………….pricked the black sky,
………………….she heard a most sonorous voice
………………….borne by the wind down
………………….the backyards of Bank Street
………………….reciting verses she knew by heart:
………………….She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
………………….and I loved her that she did pity them.

For the grandmother, hearing Robeson’s voice
………………….. . . floating to her
………………….on the wind was the voice of God,
………………….offering her protection as in days of old.

In the final section, A Dog’s Life, two poems exemplify the poet’s achievement and unique voice. One tells of the poet’s encounter in a neighborhood deli with an acquaintance from thirty years before. At first the poet fails to recognize him: the sad-eyed owner of Jason’s Discount, a store that long ago went out of business. Whitehouse reaches beyond mere nostalgia to what has been lost and what, amazingly, is gained as Jason helps her find what she needs:
………………….. . . . he helped me find the nuts I was looking for,
………………….though it wasn’t his store, but his friend’s,
………………….and, as I paid the bill, our eye beams met again
………………….in friendship, rehearsing each other’s faces.

Evoking the small act of kindness, the overlooked muscles of connection, the sounds and words of the past, the poet demonstrates how these things sustain us. In another favorite, Hawk Shabbat, a Cooper’s hawk settles on the empty air-conditioning cage outside the poet’s dining room on Friday evening as the family sits down to their Sabbath meal. The narrator keeps the dining room dark in order not to disturb the hawk, who
………………….. . . was so tired it didn’t care
………………….that we were inches away,
………………….separated only by a pane of glass.

The poet, her husband, and their daughter quietly eat their dinner by candlelight.
………………….Twice the hawk woke and stared at us
………………….Its black pupils rimmed in gold
………………….pierced me with inexpressible wildness,
………………….as fierce and strange as God’s angel.

There is a moral imperative at work here, grounded in seeing the other —whether a Vietnamese child, a shopkeeper who has lost his life’s dream, a lonely grandmother aching for beauty, or a tired hawk at rest.

Hawk Shabbat, coming near the end of the volume, invites one to return to the beginning of this beautiful book, and experience those moments of pain and joy again.

Cover of Outisde from the Inside


Paula Paige

Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections, most recently The Refrain (2012) and Meteor Shower (2016) from Dos Madres Press. Her novel, Fall Love, is available in Spanish translation as Amigos y amantes. Her essays, Poe vs. Himself and Poe and Chivers, appeared in 2018 in New England Review and Rascal Journal.


Nancy Ludmerer

Nancy Ludmerer’s story Mayim won first prize in Streetlight’s 2020 flash fiction contest. Other work is in Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, New Orleans Review, the Saturday Evening Post, Best Small Fictions, Green Mountains Review, and Carve, where Nancy was the fiction winner of Carve’s 2019 Prose & Poetry Contest. Her essay Kritios Boy (Literal Latte) was cited in Best American Essays 2014, and most recently, her story Good Intentions won first prize in Pulp Literature’s Raven Short Story Contest. She lives in New York City.

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