In Praise (and Memory) of Marie Sheppard Williams

(Note:  On Monday, December 14, at 3:40 a.m., Marie Sheppard Williams, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and, truly, one of the most magnificent human beings I've ever known, passed from this earth after a long engagement -- I don't think the peace-loving Marie would have liked the dominant war imagery of "battle" -- with cancer.  In praise of her, and in her memory, I'm presenting here the introduction I wrote for her poetry collection, Everybody, which I recommend for reasons that will become obvious as you read along.  I know I'll write more about her, but this can stand for now as both celebration and eulogy.

For those who have not had the pleasure of knowing Marie's rich opus, her work is readily available at Amazon.com.  Here is a link to her wonderful poetry collection: 
http://www.amazon.com/Everybody-Marie-Sheppard-Williams/dp/0741482355/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450194834&sr=1-8&keywords=Marie+Sheppard+Williams)

    Marie Sheppard Williams must love surprises, there are so many of them in her poems!
    This book itself will come as a surprise to many.  For who could have predicted that this master short story writer, praised by talents such as Bill Holm, Anne Lamott, and Howard Zinn and honored by a popular theatrical production of her best-known story "The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped," would amaze us with a collection of poems exhibiting such assured command of voice and a storytelling skill as fully realized as in any of her fiction?
    Whether in prose or poetry, Williams is a quintessential storyteller, and we are richer for it.  She knows not only that we hunger for story, but that we hunger for surprise, for revelation, even for revolution -- to have the tired old assumptions and verities overturned in favor of some glorious, unfulfilled promise or possibility hinted at by our own grievously neglected spiritual traditions, a better outcome than we had let ourselves hope for, though inherent in the situation at hand.
    Her poems about serving others in the dementia ward of a nursing home are especially beautiful.  There the surprise often comes in discovering the living core of humanity inside a person silenced by disability and discounted by others.  The title character of her poem "Howard" is "an Alzheimer's patient / whose ability to communicate / is simply gone." That's what others think anyway.  Yet through loving attention and independent-minded suspension of received opinions about Howard's communication abilities, Marie elicits from him, like some transcendent performance, speech "clear as clear."

You have to believe they're in there,
all the time, no matter the evidence to
the contrary.  You have to believe.

    Her poems are also abundant with the surprise of what the universe provides, which incidentally is what faith is all about.  In one of her moving poems of childhood, "Depression," Marie recounts the touching story of her brother Donny taking a glass button for a diamond which he believes with his innocent faith can rescue the family from poverty.  Donny grows up to become a rich man, we're told, and although the siblings carry their Depression-era habit of scrimping into adult life, Marie still reports finding "miracles lying on the sidewalk, jewels in glass."  She seems to be able to do this, in fact, every time she puts words on paper.  The surprise here is that one can actually emerge spiritually enriched from a time of want.  It is exactly that kind of surprise we need to keep having in fearful, greed-obsessed America.
    The very best surprises in these poems are those involving shifts in consciousness that allow Marie to perceive unsuspected levels of meaning in ordinary experience.  One such shift occurs in the title poem of this collection, "Everybody."  At a bus stop in South Minneapolis, Marie is asked to sign a street person's jacket.  He tells her he is "trying / to get everybody."  Gamely, Marie autographs a "little space on a pocket."  She concludes:

Sometimes I remember:
I am one of everybody.

    Taken all together, these poems reveal nothing less than a wholly developed human soul.  Marie Sheppard Williams understands that to embrace the unpredictable realities and unsought gifts of earthly existence is the golden road to self-acceptance and acknowledgment of one's own place in the family of being.  As a literary enactment of that committed embrace of others and self, Everybody is a kind of handbook for becoming a true human being in an era of fakes and unworthy substitutes.
    I am grateful for Marie's poems, which have illuminated my experience since I first had the good fortune of reading them several years ago.  As it happens, I too once met that street person (it was on the sidewalk in front of the Electric Fetus record store in Minneapolis) and signed his jacket, though I don't know whether it was the same one Marie signed.  It might take more than one jacket to "get everybody."  It seemed a small thing to do to add to that man's happiness, costing nothing but the effort of a few pen strokes and a basic decision to treat this perhaps homeless man as a real person.  Marie blesses her subjects and her readers alike with the recognition that they are real persons.  We come away from this book with a surer sense that we also are "one of everybody," and of what we can then do with that recognition to make the world a kinder, more just place.


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