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Fightin' Words 

State of the Arts

Irish poet Greg Delanty racked up some miles alongside environmental writer Bill McKibben last weekend on a five-day trek to call attention to the most pressing environmental issue of the day. "Everybody seems to be against global warming. Can you hear them honking?" he said mid-march on Sunday from the side of Route 7. Delanty called back later to read the message from a sign he wished he'd written: "The best time to stop global warming was 20 years ago; the second best is now."

It does have a nice ring to it. And Delanty - a politically active poet - has an ear for that sort of thing. Now that he's walked the talk on global warming, he's poised to talk the walk, by rounding up the state's most eloquent wordsmiths to weigh in on the topic at three readings, in Burlington, Montpelier and Manchester. Not since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has a common concern convened such a long list of Vermont bards.

The first event - Sunday at Burlington City Hall - features Delanty along with Julia Alvarez, Antonello Borro, Anna Blackmer, David Cavanagh, John Engels, Adrie Kusserow, Daniel Lusk, Jay Parini, Angela Patten, Elizabeth Powell and Stephen Sandy. At the second reading, October 17 at Montpelier's Christ Church, Delanty and Parini will go another round with David Budbill, Galway Kinnell, McKibben, Grace Paley and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Planning for the Manchester reading is still in process.

Not a single poet said no to Delanty. "They were glad to do it because they all feel so worried about it," he says of a threat so disarming that it breaks down "barriers between us, like political party, and class, and whether you're a businessperson or not. We're all part of the world around us. It sounds corny, but it's true."

That's not to say anyone will be waxing poetic on melting Antarctic icebergs or Vermont's threatened maple sugar industry. Delanty expects the selections will be "appropriate" without being too "burdened with a message." The only planned activism is scheduled for intermission, when attendees will be asked to write letters to Vermont's congressional candidates - like the walk, the goal of the readings is to make global warming an issue in the upcoming elections.

"Poets get beyond the sound bites to show life in new ways," Delanty offers. Let's hope that life continues to be blessed with healthy oceans, polar bears and Venice.

*****

History books recount Rogers' Raid on the St. Francis Abenaki from the usual point of view: Rogers'. The British major claimed to have killed at least 200 Indians when he torched the Indian village of Odanak, north of Montréal, in 1759.

Malian's Song, a recent children's book from the Vermont Folklife Center, challenges that longstanding account with one passed down through the generations to Barre resident and Abenaki historian Jeanne Brink. Narrated here by a little girl, the book suggests the Indians were actually warned of the attack by one of the major's Mohican scouts, and many of them managed to escape.

Grimm looks upbeat next to this vividly illustrated war story in which a little girl watches her community burn and her father disappear forever. Which is one reason the New York Times Book Review praised it last month - the Folklife Center's first such citing - along with two other eye-opening children's books. "These brilliant books are not feel-good, not melting-pot optimistic," writes critic Simon Rodberg. "They are as difficult as the real histories they tell, and they insist not only on diversity, but on difference. They force parents and teachers to confront just how harsh a truth we can teach our children."

Like the morning newspaper, the book doesn't offer much in the way of a warning. No "once-upon-a-time" or other white-kid-lit constructs soften the sharpness of the Indian storytelling style. "It's assumed that your audience knows the background the story is coming from," explains Dora Seale, a Burlington-based author of numerous books about Native representation in children's books. "So there's no need to interpolate textual information. The setting is indicated by the way the story is told, the interchanges between people and the action itself." One moonlit night Malian's father is teaching her how to fish with her hands; the next, he is carrying her, blankets and all, out of harm's way.

Marge Bruchac penned the story from Brink's oral account as it was preserved by the Obomsawin and Msadoques families; at the back of the book she provides the historical facts on the raid. "It's perfect for a unit on Native Americans," says Kathleen Finn of the VFC, noting Abenaki history is part of the state's educational standards, and "there just isn't enough material; teachers are hungry for it." Malian's Song, the seventh children's book published by the Folklife Center, is the first in the series to acknowledge Vermont's original citizens. Could it be a coincidence that the state also "recognized" the Abenaki this year?

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

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Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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