When invited to offer a devotional at the Vermont State Legislature this year, I thought about how lately most every headline I read seems to carry a potentially lethal dose of venom. So I decided to present a love poem to devotion to even up the score a bit.
I’ve been a traveling poet in Vermont for fifty years now, feeling for the verse in conversation, the surprising turn of phrase, the never-told story. A third grader learns whittling from his grandfather. “He told us to cut away from our bodies so the knife wouldn’t go into our hearts.” A farm woman narrates her husband’s valentine: “I bring you switchel in the heat of the day. You take a break from stacking hay. Our glasses sweating. Our brows sweating. Our life is a gift.”
Recently, I joined the Selectboard, of Guilford, my hometown for half a century. My first week, our road commissioner Dan Zumbruski drove me over the routes his crew maintains. Five men travel more than 100,000 miles a year on 75 miles of road, 60 of them gravel, steep, narrow, and winding, to keep up with “whatever Mother Nature throws down.”
Mastering budget data and pondering solid waste, I began to understand Mario Cuomo’s saying: “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Our town has spent two years in passionate debate over the Flood and Fluvial Erosion Hazard Ordinance, (nicknamed FFEH!). The science is complicated; the ordinance is imperfect; the dread of regulation and disaster are real. The issue will be settled by Australian ballot at the end of Town Meeting day. Yet we are here, striving to understand, trying to be patient, stepping back from blame. And that feels like victory, like poetry, no matter what the outcome.
“I want you to bring that girl here,” said Margery Evans, age 101, a retired farm wife. “That girl” was Sara Coffey. She was running for the State Legislature, and Margery, who keeps up with politics, wanted to meet her. The new candidate and the oldest constituent chatted half an hour, then Margery retired to fill in her absentee ballot. As she sealed it and smiled, I thought this is the vote, the vow, in devotion.