Nanaimo poet Kim Goldberg remembers her friend Leonard Williams as someone who called every day a blessing and really meant it, even when he was standing in the pouring rain with his hair matted to his head.
“I’ve never seen anyone who was more continuously and authentically happy and contented and basically filled with gratitude…” she said. “I actually get choked up thinking about it because he had just this purity about him that I feel just sort of transcends the state that almost all of us are living in.”
On Boxing Day, Williams was found dead in an alleyway in downtown Nanaimo. Williams, who was experiencing homelessness, had been living in the Wesley Street encampment before it was dismantled on Dec. 3, Goldberg said. Goldberg met Williams while researching Red Zone, her 2009 book of poetry about homelessness in Nanaimo, and when she heard of his death, she was moved to memorialize him in her poetry.
“The whole thing made me angry, made me disgusted, made me heartsick the fact that he’d survived 59 years and in his recent years in a life that most would consider a very difficult life, but yet he always saw the beauty and brought such beauty with him everywhere he went,” she said. “It just was all demanding that some sort of poetic expression come forth.”
This month Goldberg wrote Lesser Gods (for Leonard). The concept came from a book of Greek mythology she read that had chapters devoted to each of the major gods, but one chapter at the end covering all the lesser gods. She thought the notion of a “lesser god” seemed contradictory – “Gods are all-powerful aren’t they? So what are lesser gods?” – but the idea made her think of those experiencing homelessness.
“Because of the conditions in which they’re living and how invisible we as a society choose to render them, they’re almost living in this superhuman or outside-of-human state, a godlike state really, almost a sanctified state, and yet they’re invisible to us,” Goldberg said. “But who knows what they’re really doing. Who knows what role they may actually be playing?”
That’s a question the poem considers in its final line: “No one knows what happens in the pause when people lose their final lesser god.”
“The people living our satisfied, mundane lives in homes with sufficient heat, sufficient clothes, sufficient food … is it somehow made possible for us to take it all for granted because there are people in our community who don’t have any of that?” Goldberg asked. “What happens if they are all allowed to die in their invisibility to us? Something very bad might happen to our society.”
Lesser Gods (for Leonard) can be read here.