On The Irreversibility of Time by Mame Willey

Mame Willey
Author photo: Mark Shaw  

In the refreshingly iconoclastic poems of On the Irreversibility of Time, her second poetry collection, Mame Willey looks unflinchingly at the worst life has to offer, staring it down and countermanding it with unfailing compassion, resilience, and a lovely dose of irony and wit. Taking her cue from Robert Frost’s directive that the poet should be at home in herself, Mame Willey is very much her own person. She will surprise you with the unpredictable turns of mind and unconventional points of view her poems present, always with an undercurrent of magnanimity and generosity of spirit.

Cover painting, Flight of Fancy,
by Andrea Doughtie



Mame Willey grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Vassar College. She then moved to the Boston area, where she married and raised two children, Peter and Katie. She has taught English at Bentley College, Wellesley College, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She received an MA in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and an MFA in poetry from the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Now living in Vermont, she teaches in Dartmouth College’s Lifelong Education program, ILEAD. Her fiction has appeared in several journals, among them The Hudson Review, The Mississippi Review, Hanging Loose, and Colorado Quarterly. Her poetry has been published by journals including Blueline, California Quarterly, Hunger Mountain, Entelechy International, Slant, and Hanging Loose. Her previous book is entitled Time Stopped.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-15-3

Copyright © 2011 by Mame Willey

6" x 9" paperback, 92 pages





September 2002

Yes, I remember the planes hitting the towers
billows of red flame and black smoke
and if I didn’t remember TV would remind me
every other week. I remember too the clouds
of dust so thick you couldn’t see beyond them
and people on the upper floors
clustered at windows and yes
a man dropping towards the pavement—
I saw that right as it happened, when even TV
was too stunned to censor itself.
But mostly I remember the papers
—TV never bothers with them now—
sailing above the smoke and dust:
letters, memos, files left on the desks of colleagues
like kites, like origami, like paper airplanes.


After a couple of weeks there
you learned to walk down the back road
past the barns to the railroad bridge
where you’d stand and wait
for the train that went by at 3:36
or thereabouts. When you saw it coming
you waved and waved and the engine
produced two toots, two puffs of black smoke
and slid under the bridge. And you
went on with your walk, thrilled
as any three-year-old at having been recognized.


The water tasted like iron.
There were mosquitoes.
No screens in the windows of our cabins
no glass either. Cold at night
cold in the daytime too
but they made us wear shorts all the time
and we had to swim in the lake every day
except for some of the older girls.

I was exiled to the mountains
while Margie and Anne were at the seashore
with Mother and Daddy.
They could swim in the ocean
go digging for clams with Ruthie
see Shirley Temple on Saturday afternoons.

She’d kicked me out of the family
like I knew she always wanted to.
When I wrote her the first time
the letter back said it was too bad
about the water and the cold
but I’d get used to it.
There wasn’t anything
about coming to get me.


When I was fifteen you sent me to the hardware store,
the plumbing section, to get you a ball cock
for the toilet that wouldn’t stop running.
I guess you were too busy to go yourself
or maybe you were embarrassed, too
though you didn’t seem to understand
why I whined and made excuses. I finally went
and the man at the counter smirked or I thought he did
when I spoke the awful words. Later
I explained, making a joke of it, and you
as if now finally getting it, said “Oh.”


They’ve put me on a sofa in an alcove
—not a room really, just a “space”—
for watching the oversized TV
or reading, though the books
are not inviting: A World Book set
spines unscratched as the day they were bought
Man’s Best Friend, Basic Combined Training, Lassie Come Home.
Around the corner another space with the exercise-machines
and a big window holding spring trees
red, yellow, green.

Behind me, windows of another sort—
three oil-paintings done by an amateur hand
seashore scenes in oranges, blues, greens.
A sailboat at anchor, the water made of blue dots
Seurat-style, but the water refuses to lie flat
and threatens to rear right up out of the canvas
just as the wooden steps that lead to the front door
of the cottage tilt at an angle impossible to walk on.
Only with the path along the beach-fence does perspective
lie down and behave as it’s supposed to.

They remind me of paintings I used to do myself
back when I still believed practice could overcome
lack of talent. I would not have put mine in these
expensive gilt frames, or hung them in such a conspicuous place.

I see by the signatures they were painted by the lady of the house
who is at the moment down the hall in the computer room
being taught to use a program
for keeping the books of her horse-training business.
She has no idea I’m sitting here writing about her.


When he finished his coffee
put on his jacket
took the shovel
and went to clear the steps
then the front walk
he was here, the way you
and I are here, he had plans:
poems to send out
reading next month
class to teach tomorrow.
The shoveling done
he’d sit at the computer.
Lines were already
wandering through his head.
He had a wife
and a seven-year-old daughter
who afterwards
would go on with their own plans.


(though, given the circumstances
they were really sitting down)

there in the waiting-room I saw one
reading a magazine and laughing.
Glasses, snow-white mustache
full head of curly white hair
just like the man I saw that time in the subway
sitting opposite, and for five uncomfortable
minutes I thought it might be D.
Nor was it D now, sitting there:
Too short. Too plump. Too cheerful.

It was cold in the lab where the phlebotomist
drew three vials of blood from my arm.
“We keep it cold in here,” she said.
“We’re always running around,”

then she sent me back to the warm waiting-room
where I saw you, hunched over, not moving
till the nurse called your name.
Your face before had been red but now
it was as white as your beard.
You stared down at the floor, the way you did
on our last drives together, when you sat huddled
in the passenger-seat, with the spring landscape
rolling past and you paid it no mind.

But again, it wasn’t you—too tall, too thin
the beard too trim. So I sat there waiting
for my infusion, and passed the time
writing in my notebook
on this day when the dead were walking.

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