A WRITER'S WIT
A Poet Remembered
Perhaps the most memorable instance in which I accompanied Sheila Zamora was when she performed “Once Upon a Time,” a selection from a long-forgotten Broadway show, All American. She was a junior, and the spinet I played was shoved against the natatorium wall at South High in Wichita, Kansas. The smell of chlorine was nearly overwhelming, the edge of the spotlight barely illuminating my sheet music. While Sheila sang on behalf of what was called the Water Show, certain mermaids performed a synchronized swimming number. When the spectacle was over, a crowd in the stands applauded, and later Sheila drove me home.
I accompanied a number of vocalists in high school, college, and beyond. I followed and guided them all, but Sheila seemed more of a poet in her stylings than a mere soprano—I would seem to lean with her as she stretched a phrase or paused for a silence only she heard. One scorching summer day, while we were both in college, I ran into her downtown, near the old Henry’s store. In the crosswalk, we stopped to talk until any further exchange became impossible. I never saw her again.
Many years later, while perusing a publisher’s catalog, I ran across an ad for books of poetry. There, in print, I saw her name, Sheila Zamora, but was it my Sheila Zamora? In this book of poetry, the one I ordered out of great curiosity, the editor begins with a short biography. She reveals that Sheila, of Mexican-German parents, grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and graduated, in 1970, from Wichita State University with a BA in English. This Sheila had also married a man fourteen years her senior, had given birth to two sons, and eventually was accepted into a graduate program in creative writing at Arizona State. This Sheila's marriage later went sour, in fact, became untenable and dangerous. In 1978, when the Sheila I'd accompanied was thirty-one, her estranged husband, within view of her two boys, shot her four times and killed her.
“Dick, let’s see,” Sheila writes in my 1965 yearbook:
“How many songs are there that I could never have sung without you? I don’t think I could count. Thank you for being my accompanist, and my friend.” Then on what becomes a more poignant note, she ends by saying, “Remember to keep your chin up and keep playing when the going gets tough. I’ll miss you so much . . . . Good luck. Sheila Z.”
I’ve read Sheila’s collection a number of times. As fine as they are, her poems may not be of equal maturation, having been frozen before the poet, no doubt, could reach her full potential. Still, I keep re-reading them, perhaps searching for the high school girl I once knew, the one who, if she had lived, might now be singing “Once Upon a Time” in a lower key, with a huskier voice, from the viewpoint of a mature woman. On this, the anniversary of Sheila's birth, I share below the entire poem from which today's "A Writer's Wit" is excerpted—one that exhibits how she may have wrestled with an idea of the man who took her life.
The Talk of Two Women
the Wandering Jew in an opposite
direction from where it has leaned
toward the light, find in the deep
glossy purple of underleaves
the underside of words. I ask
to see your sculpture and you
meet my two small sons who are suddenly
between us as in a photograph taken years ago; it
barely distinguishes their arms, the color
of desert earth, or strands
of their hair like the startled
meticulous patterns of ceramic. We compare
our lives, using language
which is a second language, intangible
as instinct. I care most
for the hollows inside
your bottle-hangings where I imagine
breath might swirl, and you
listen to the breath shaped like woodwinds
inside my poems. We share
what we know about fear, about the obvious
risks of loving
men we can’t resist, their arms,
the gentle rafts where we would drown
while the real dangers
wait inside what we rarely trust: other women,
ourselves, and the sound of children
weaving through our voices. Yet
we find ways to talk, touching lightly,
as instinct turns us in other directions
from where we lean apart. We turn
toward the polish of art
shaped like violins twisting us
from the idea of risk
into a mutual light.
Zamora, Sheila. Leaf’s Boundary. With an introduction by Pamela
Stewart. New York: Hoffstadt and Sons, 1980, 6-7.