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Sample Poems by Irene Willis


I learn later it's an oculus --
that round window near the roofline
past and present, watching
like Grandmother Nana's eye
over my shoulder at the book
I read in her parlor on the horsehair sofa
or brocade wingchair, knees curled up
as I tried to keep my secrets, so few then
so many now but still remembering
how it was I couldn't write without
her stern, withheld approval --
those tight lips, as if she were casting
the spell that would strike me dumb.

The brownstone looms on that street still,
its windows boarded, a For Sale sign,
the kitchen below ground, the iron fence
around the garden, the high steps
and inside, the marble baths, the pocket doors
the gloom, the dining chandelier, the fear.

What would she say of my mother next?
Would she tell me how, as a bride, Rhoda
stuck a finger in the pie cooling on the table -
she who had never seen a fresh-baked pie
made with someone's own hands, in
her own kitchen, who remembered only
the picture in the nursery rhyme, the one
she read to me? My mother, just out of
her teens, happy to be in a family at last
that had a mother and a father in a house.
Would she tell me I should be ashamed
of her not knowing what she should,
like breaking her bread before she buttered it?

No kin of mine, Nana's letter said to me. Not you.
I bought your father from an ad in the paper.
Aunt Florence told me this was partly true.
Nana had paid the midwife. Grandpop
was the father. The mother? A mystery.

If I had known I might have understood
why it was I felt no warmth from her - only
from Grandpop. Here, in another photo,
I'm on his lap. There's Ming, the dog,
beside the rosebush. Daddy must be
holding the camera. I can just see
Nana's shadow. Where's my mother?

Telling Him

Of course she's my mother.
She's always been my mother,
my father said when I told him.

Why didn't I take it with me
when I went down to see him
in the city and took a cab

to West 57th - far west -
and up those flights of stairs?
Why didn't I have the letter

with me when I said yes
to the coffee he poured,
fresh-brewed from the pot

he had ready, even there?
He was sober, shaved,
his tiny place was spotless,

bed made up with hospital
corners like those he taught me
and tight enough to bounce a coin.

When I saw his hurt, I couldn't pursue.
I could only hug that man who
told me stories and sent me books.

I could only cry and hug.


We love who gives us song ...
a line from one of my own old poems
remembers how they sang around the flat -
even my brother, on bended knee,
doing his Jolson Mammy at thirteen.
My father, when he was sober, sang
Little Brown Jug, with its laughing refrain -
a ha that sounded real, that sounded home.
The you was me, I knew, in you and me.
How I love thee was the part I waited for
and made me beg to have it sung again.
I was thee then still, the way I was
under the quilt with bears when I was small
and my mother sang in her high, soft voice,
Sleep, my little one, and I couldn't close my eyes
until I heard the words. I was her pretty one,
she sang, as I was his thee, and they were love.

On the Bill

When she couldn't look
the butcher in the eye,
she sent the child
to "put it on the bill."
My mother's purse was full
of everything but money
as she dropped it
on the kitchen table,
fished out a pencil stub
and wrote what added up
to what she didn't have
and he would not
bring home that night
when, paycheck cashed,
he bought drinks all around
or pals got him drunk
and cleaned his pockets.
Nobody had any money then.
Nobody seemed to have a job
except my father.


How would you like ... my mother would muse,
stirring saccharin into her cup.

boarding school? I sent for catalogs,
did everything but pack my bags.

Elocution lessons? Tap? Ballet?
What's elocution? I asked at nine.

Whatever it was, it sounded like
a treat I would have loved

if only what she said were true,
that I could do - whatever she fantasized:

tap shoes but no classes,
piano lessons but no piano.

I believed. Oh, how I did, and tried
pursuing each new dream until it died.


I listened as my mother told the story
as she had told me others; I was eight
or seven or six; I can't remember which
but only her kimono spilling open,
the saccharin on the table near her cup
and red nails on the hand she used to doodle
ivy leaves and vines on a paper napkin.
My beloved father was snoring in their bedroom
but Madeline, eighteen when the agency sent her,
whose room was nearest the door when he came home
at what my mother called "the crack of dawn,"
was gone, taking fairies and leprechauns with her
and her laughter and long red hair.