Author: Irene Willis
Publisher: University of Central Florida
In this first collection of her poems, Irene Willis takes the ordinary stuff of life--a childhood in New York, an adored father who drank too much, a mother's slow decline and death, a second love and marriage--and transforms it into unforgettable poetry. She was born a poet, one of those children who hang around adults avidly waiting for stories. In the poem "Fat Arms," Go out and play, my mother would say. But I wanted to listen for what my friends and I would do later down in the street when we had on our mothers' old dresses and high heels, a circle of rouge on each cheek, giant pocketbooks under our arms. In that image from the child's point of view--"giant pocketbooks"--Willis opens our own memories of that sweet, uneasy time. She, too, hated the barber, worshipped her grade-school teachers, and was tender to ladybugs; these emotions are evoked with childhood's intensity and presented in rich detail and with a sense of humor rare in modern poetry: "Grandma wanted to / shake Florence until / the raisins rattled / in her rice-pudding / brain" (from "Aunt Florence Always Wore Pastels"). The third section, poems about her mother's decline and death, is a tour de force. These poems should be gloomy, but they are not. Because there is so much love between mother and daughter and so much love of life in both of them, the poems, like the people, refuse to sit down and cry. Here is an excerpt from "Dancing Feet": I want my dancing feet, my mother said . . . This was the lady who used to do the shimmy and the Charleston, who fox-trotted her way into one marriage and out, then met another husband at a dance and took the measure of him by his two-step. I stood up, moved to music for her, swinging into an elegant solo dip worthy of chiffon, rhinestones, marcel wave. She bobbed and clapped. From the last section, a tribute to love come upon in middle age, this poem, quoted in full, gives some idea of the power of the poet's imagination and the grace of her diction: On Dingle Walking away from the burden of who I am down a dirt road on Dingle, I see myself. I see us, you and me, from the back. I see our packs, bulging with the oddments of our profession of being who we are the ones who carry ourselves wherever we go. Wild thyme scents the air; small black flies circle our heads; the dirt underfoot is quiet. Stealthily, we walk past a farmhouse, a fence. A dog comes out, barking in Mother Goose. The road is a lane, the gate a stile and you, whose head is a foot above mine in your separate packet of purple-scented air, are my fancy. I am your locket, your love your tuffet, your curds, your whey. The Ireland of our fathers, yours and mine, waits like a pocket, open to catch us, plucked from the lane like two pennies.