Singing Their Lives, as Poets and Partners
- By Lee Ann Cox
“A poet must lie to eat,” writes Daniel Lusk. “If you would know him…/See how he walks around his house,/singing songs./See where he has tapped his stick/and where he places his chair.”
Lusk, emeritus lecturer of English, wrote that from the log house on a western slope of the Green Mountains that he shared for more than a dozen years with his wife, Angela Patten, poet and current lecturer in the department. Meeting the rugged, thoughtful man – and reading his new collection, Kin, meditations on the wildness of animals and earth that surrounded them there – is to see the poet walking, chopping wood, composing lines from his chair, positioned perhaps where he can look out and muse on a warbler’s trill.
Artists are allowed their license, yet that first line of Lusk’s poem fails to resonate here. Both his and Patten’s work, each in its unique way, rings with the truth of who they are. Patten is explicit, bringing the melodic language and poignant tales of her Irish childhood into her poetry and now into a recently released memoir, High Tea at a Low Table.
"I’m always telling stories, I grew up with stories," says Patten, explaining her need to move beyond the limits of poetic form to capture the narrative of a life that began in Sallynoggin, a working class neighborhood of Dublin. It’s a nostalgic homage tinged with the realism of growing up poor with harsh school nuns and parents “as different as chalk and cheese.” Even in the 1950s and '60s there was the ragman, the slopman and the coalman who came to the door with horses and carts and the family’s milk was delivered by bicycle and ladled out from a “tilleycan.”
Patten’s father was a taciturn man, not a true Dubliner but a “culchie” from County Meath with a “moody-broody disposition,” contrasting wildly with her mother’s incessant talking, “the soundtrack of my childhood,” Patten writes. Her book details warm memories – her father’s fiddle playing, “Mammy’s” action tales and recitations from Shakespeare to Tennyson – as well as hard stories, of illness and the unintentional but striking repression of Patten’s spirit that left her depressed and unsure of herself for decades.
She arrived in the U.S. in what was to be a short-lived marriage with a young son and an “off-the-boat” accent she suppressed as quickly as she could. Carrying the narrative between her American adulthood and Irish upbringing in High Tea at a Low Table is a tense account of being kidnapped at gunpoint while studying as a nontraditional student at UVM in 1984.
Over time, Patten has overcome a lot, finding her voice as a poet and teacher, “the ultimate late bloomer” she calls herself. “Instead of feeling embarrassed about where I came from,” she says, “now I feel that it’s something to celebrate, something rich.” She mines it and she keeps it close.
“Poetry is a way to be in the world for me,” says Patten, “to talk about how the world seemed then and how it seems now.” She admits to living in the past, contrasting herself to Lusk, always looking ahead.
Lusk accounts for that honestly, saying his regrets are so powerful he keeps it all locked in a room. The two bandy about the psychology behind that, discussing the differences in their natures with evident affection.
“I was very rebellious, and I still am,” Patten says, explaining her mother’s repeated admonition in the book that she should cut her garment according to her cloth. “I like to go to extremes,” she says. “I don’t like playing by the rules – Daniel’s more careful. I like that he’s more careful but I also chafe at it.”
“It only nettles when it comes to true danger,” Lusk says, acknowledging he enjoys her fiery disposition.
Staying within his personal zone of safety, Lusk is less overt in writing his life. But the notes are there. Like Patten, he grew up poor, in a Baptist household in rural Iowa. Despite a dream of being a torch singer (which he was for a time, along with ranching and other seemingly unlikely pursuits), he felt that his religious upbringing – and desire to escape a life of working class poverty – left him destined to be a preacher. “It was like the soup we had for supper,” he says. “Growing up, The King James Bible was my Shakespeare. It was the language that I knew."
Even as he was serving as a preacher in churches his senior year in college, Lusk was reading philosophers and realizing he didn’t believe what he was saying. “I began to think my way out of Christianity,” he says.
But though his message changed, his inspiration and his religion-steeped phrases run deep. “For me,” Lusk says, “the instincts that made me want to speak from the heart, to represent the thoughts and feelings and desires of other people (through prayer), helped me to want to be a poet.
“(Writing Kin,) I was trying to put into words that sense that I had of how humans are part of the natural order – or disorder,” Lusk says. “The animals would come, and they would present themselves and I would be amazed, but I would also have this response that wanted to be language.” The bears a visitation, the writing a sacrament.
In his poems Lusk joins his two initial callings. “Ever since I began to write poetry I’ve always wanted to write poems that sang themselves off the page because my impulse was to sing. The prayerfulness, that was the undercurrent.”
Today the pair has moved into town, trading the effort and isolation of the woods for an easier life. “Angela is trying to civilize me,” laughs Lusk, though he admits to enjoying a more social existence while she says she misses the wild beauty. But they’ve christened their condo the same as their cabin, carraig binn (Gaelic for “sweet rock”) and kept some of the “relationship things” started there: she will cook, for instance, as long as he entertains her with a book. “Daniel,” she says,” has a beautiful voice for reading.”