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Vermont Quarterly

‘A way to be in the world’

Angela Patten and Daniel Lusk share writing lives

Angela Patten
Photograph by Ben Sarle


‘A way to be in the world’

Angela Patten and Daniel Lusk share writing lives

By Lee Ann Cox

"I’m always telling stories; I grew up with stories," says Angela Patten ’86 as she discusses her recently published memoir High Tea at a Low Table (Wind Ridge Books). The alumna and longtime lecturer in the English Department brings a poet’s gift for language to her 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 United States 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.”

Her husband, Daniel Lusk, a fellow poet and a fellow faculty member in the English Department before Lusk’s retirement, is a kindred writing soul. 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.” Lusk has also published recently, a collection of poems titled Kin (Wind Ridge Books).

After years of living in the woods, the couple has moved into town, trading the effort and isolation of life on a dirt road for something easier. “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 with the same poetry they bestowed upon their cabin—the Gaelic words for “sweet rock,” Carraig Binn.

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