In a reading at Villanova on Wednesday, September 26, novelist Elise Juska and poet Brian Teare read to a packed room of students and faculty from recent work that interweaves the personal and political.
Although the readings were excellent, there was little evident connection between their subject matter, as Teare’s poetry focuses on his place in a changing natural world and Juska’s prose addresses gun violence with realism and compassion. A poet myself, I was more excited by Teare’s work, but Juska’s work was very powerful as well.
Juska began the reading with a section from her most recent book, “If We Had Known.” The novel, set at a rural Maine university in the aftermath of a mass shooting, follows various acquaintances of the shooter as they react to the violence.
Juska thought of writing the book ten years ago, after reading an interview with the Virginia Tech gunman’s creative writing teacher, who was disturbed by his morbid writing and alerted school authorities to no avail. “If We Had Known” focuses on Maggie Daley, a professor in a similar position, who wonders whether she missed the signs with Nathan Dugan, the shooter, who was in her class years before the crime.
Juska alternates between chapters that follow various characters, including Maggie, her daughter, Anna, and an acquaintance of the shooter’s, Luke. The section from which she read followed Luke as he learned about the shooting, and she created a pitch-perfect tone that seemed realistic for a teenager just trying to lead a normal life.
She began: “What he remembered most about his English class freshman year was Meredith Kenney. She was the kind of student Luke could never be. The kind who always raised her hand in class and seemed to genuinely care, and somehow this made her seem admirable instead of annoying.”
Nathan was also in this English class, and Luke posts about the shooting on Facebook, recollecting Nathan’s strange mannerisms and isolation from other students. He posts partly in the hope that Meredith will comment, and she doesn’t — but then, as things do on social media, his post goes viral.
That use of the internet of the ways Juska makes the book relatable to readers both young and old. In the Q&A later, she said she actually workshopped chapters on Luke and the other young characters with her students — and it shows. I especially loved how she read an emoji aloud as “horrified emoji face.”
But this is serious stuff, and Luke — like the creative writing teacher who later sees his post — irrationally wonders if he could have done anything to stop the shooting, such as being friendlier to Nathan, who had wanted to go hunting with him.
In a stunning image, Luke wonders if that rejection was just “one more tiny moment, added to an accumulation of tiny moments. Like the volcano he’d made in seventh-grade science, how each ounce of vinegar you dripped through the hole in the top brought the whole thing a notch closer to blowing up.”
And on that suspenseful, emotive note, Juska ended her reading. Teare, who I’d read during Professor Nathalie Anderson’s first-year seminar “Philadelphia Poets” last year, and who had given a great reading at Swarthmore during that class, took the stage.
Teare did not disappoint, engaging with the audience and presenting beautiful and challenging work. The poems he read, often long and fragmented, focus on the complex relationship of self to nature in the 21st century.
That positionality came across beautifully in the first poem, “Star Thistle,” which closes his fourth collection, “Companion Grasses.” The poem is both a moving elegy for the poet Reginald Shepherd, who died in 2008, and a diary of Teare’s hikes on Atlas Peak, a mountain in northern California, and Teare read it with evident emotion.
It’s a long poem — eight pages — so it’s hard to get a grasp of when read aloud. That’s still true on the page, where the fragmentary two-line stanzas are filled with confusing syntax and only punctuated by commas and colons. The poem begins:
He died & lamplight
That night brought out against fog its grid of gambits,
Each street a perfect winter
Dissembled : pure effect
But there are easier, more evocative lines that stood out to me when hearing it: “how spring undoes the year like a knot,” for instance. And on the whole, the poem juxtaposes Shepherd’s long battle with HIV and cancer (the “he” above is Shepherd) with Teare’s hikes, on which he encounters the star thistle, an invasive species that prevents anything else from growing there. Teare ends the poem on a tender, contemplative note:
from star down to thistle
it’s all the same : still firm in the ground,
today it breaks in my hand,
bad mourning that this summer flowers
the life only destruction makes possible.
Here, the environmentalist stakes are clear: the star thistle’s life depends on the destruction of other plants. As Teare explained in the Q&A, he writes his poems on repeated hikes, and it was through that process that he learned about the thistle’s invasiveness and wrote this poem 10 years ago.
He quipped: “Now I’d be thinking more from the star thistle’s perspective” — because it, too, is just trying to survive.
Teare’s other poems were probably more accessible, though no less rewarding. “Sitting River Meditation,” from his forthcoming book, “Doomstead Days,” stood out with the fascinating line “I like to put my mind where two worlds meet and agree to disagree.”
The Q&A afterwards was also illuminating. Juska answered questions about writing teenage characters — “the more I write, the farther away I go from my own life,” she said — and discussed the reception to “If We Had Known.”
The book is important for its continued relevance, and she said she’d heard from teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where the Parkland shooting occurred last fall. Although they said that they hadn’t seen the signs, “If We Had Known” still had a powerful impact. I really admire this direct connection to those involved in mass shootings, but equally admire how Juska makes the book relevant and important to everyday readers. Not all millennials and college students are as activist as some survivors of the Parkland shooting, but gun violence affects us all.
Teare discussed, among other things, his education. An uneven undergrad student, he said remembered little about the English survey course he took except reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry aloud. The unusual rhythm and sound of Hopkins’s work had a lasting impression on him and informs the current musicality of his verse.
“[It was] like being inside the bell when the bell’s ringing,” Teare said — and he didn’t even do the reading beforehand. (Sound familiar?)
Teare’s own reading didn’t have quite that much of a transformational effect on me, but its musicality and its concern with the self in the environment is inspiring, and will certainly inform my own poetry.
Featured Image courtesy of poetryfoundation.org