An Evening With CavanKerry Poets



CavanKerry, a not-for-profit literary press, aims to expand the reach of poetry to a general readership by publishing works that explore the emotional and psychological landscapes of everyday life. Come enjoy recent work by publisher and poet Joan Cusack Handler, “…whose verse memoir, Orphans…tackles the big subjects – family history, aging parents, Irish Catholicism, belief and unbelief, and her own impending mortality – with a fierce, wrenching fearlessness” (poet Elizabeth Spires). She is joined by poet Tina Kelley, reading from Abloom & Awry (2017), which poet Pattiann Rogers says “presents the unrestrained curiosity and imagination of childhood in exquisite language without exaggeration or sentimentality. ” Also reading is Danny Shot whose book, Works, is due out in 2018, and whose poetry has appeared in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. “Danny’s work highlights the joys of human life, while also tearing away sheets of denial to confront modern political and social hypocrisy…” (poet Eliot Katz).

Tuesday, June 6 ~ 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM   Cost: $10

The Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY  10014


Reading & Discussion with Joan Cusack Handler

Please join me for a Reading & Discussion of my latest book, Orphans

Wednesday, April 5

7:00 PM

Women of Irish Heritage Meeting

The Shillelagh Club

648 Prospect Avenue (Upstairs)

West Orange, NJ

GoodReads Review of Orphans by Molly Peacock

Molly rated 5 Stars – It was amazing
Joan Cusack Handler’s parents are so vivid in this memoir that they fly off the page. How often in a daughter’s memoir—here a memoir of her Irish Catholic parents, new to New York and bringing up a family in the 1950’s—can you actually feel the voices of the family? Orphans is not just in Handler’s voice, but in the voices of her parents, carefully recorded and presented with blasts of personality, joie de vivre, sadness, shame, religious fervor, cruelty, anger, thrill and celebration. What’s so magnificent about Orphans is that Handler fearlessly uses the whole palette of human emotions. Her gentle father with his commitment to God and her ferocious mother with the threats of the backside of her hand both bloom in this book. With guilt and backward glances, with acceptance and adult fulfillment, Handler, also author of Confessions of Joan the Tall, makes us know that voice is life itself. She gives us a tapestry of retrospection, and, as a side benefit to the stories of a man and a woman and their four children, a path for how to live. (less)

East Hampton Local Publishes Heartfelt Verse Memoir

Joan Cusack Handler posing with her poetry book
Sep 5, 2016 11:45 AM


No one is taught how to cope with the death of a loved one, arguably the most emotionally painful experience in one’s life. After Joan Cusack Handler’s parents died, she decided to explore the aftermath in her latest book, “Orphans,” and reflect on her family life.

Ms. Handler, a 75-year-old poet and psychologist, published the book in March after collecting 10 years worth of her poems that she never thought would form a cohesive body of work. This honest and intimate verse memoir delves into the vulnerability that comes with losing both parents and essentially feeling like an orphan. Although all of the stories are personal accounts, they discuss universal topics that virtually everyone with family members experiences.

Ms. Handler provides a glimpse into a household of strained relationships and religious conservatism from three different points of view.

She recorded her parents’ words when they were ill and turned them into poems. Eleven poems, titled either “My Mother Speaks” or “My Father Speaks,” are stories about their own upbringings that provide insight into the way they later raised their four children. Ms. Handler recorded their voices to hold on to a part of them after they died, unaware that these words would end up in a poetry book.

“I kept their diction and expressions and preserved as much of their actual words as I could, and then went in and shaped it into poems,” Ms. Handler explained. “As much as possible, I tried to avoid tinkering with what they were saying. It was an amazing experience, because I had no idea that I could do that and that their voices would cooperate.”

In the only poem titled “My Father Speaks,” her father, Eugene Cusack, talks about his wife, Mary O’Connor Cusack, who died in 1998: “I miss Mom these ten years. / But you get used to it — / the quiet. / And there’s plenty to do. I’m always busy. / Sometimes I’ll even hear myself talking / like she was still here in the room with me. / Mom was a great talker.”

Ms. Handler admitted in an interview to having had complicated yet strong relationships with her Irish immigrant parents. She struggled to understand her mother’s behavior toward her and her siblings, but she always knew it stemmed from her grandmother’s death when her mother was only 6. The loss and its impact are described in the first poem of the book:

“My mother never really got over that. So she was really very possessive of her children, very needy—she was wonderful and she was horrible.”

Ms. Handler and her father always had a loving and respectful relationship that lasted until he died seven years ago at age 99. Although she considered them very close, his conservative outlook—he was a devout Catholic—was consistently a bone of contention. Her different religious and political stances caused frequent fights between the two of them.

“There were lots of things we couldn’t talk about,” she said. “I grew up with awareness that there was a whole litany of feelings that I was never supposed to have and that I denied to myself and to everyone around me.”

Although she considers her first family “very broken,” she is grateful for the family she now has. She and her husband of 36 years, Alan Handler, split their time between New Jersey and East Hampton while raising their son, David.

She said East Hampton holds a special place in her heart: “In many ways, this is really our home. It’s where our heart is. My husband was in the process of building this house when I met him. It’s our oasis. We were married in this house.”

Joan Cusack Handler will have a book signing for “Orphans” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, October 22, when visitors can meet her and discuss her poems.

Publisher Profile / CavanKerry Press

A review by ForeWord Reviews


Reviewed by Matt Sutherland

From the founder of CavanKerry Press, this delightful memoir in verse bears witness to a complicated family history of Ireland’s Troubles, devout Catholicism, fierce maternal strength, aging, death, bitterness, and love. That Joan Cusack Handler’s poetry is flawless serves to draw the emotional tension of her carefully measured remembrances even tauter. She is the author of two other collections of poetry, another memoir, and the recipient of five Pushcart nominations.


Partners in this loss, Dad attends
mornings, I afternoons, but Catherine
gives all: two weeks’ vacation sleeping on the stiff recliner
for the words that will
finally tell her that,
yes, her mother loves her.
My sister suffers a deeper grief;
this is the second time she’s lost our mother —
convinced from childhood that she was adopted, no
other reason for Mom’s refusal. But I pose
another: Catherine’s Dad’s favorite.
For our mother, our father loving his daughter meant he loved
his wife less.

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author provided free copies of his/her book to have his/her book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the author for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love and make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


Gray Jacobik reviews Orphans

Top Customer Reviews

I’ve read and re-read “Orphans” and much of it keeps coming back to me whenever I’m walking or driving or have an idle moment (waiting in a security line at the airport, for example). While composed in different voices, each taking his or her turn, there’s nonetheless a tapestry quality because the poet’s interweaves the speakers’ stories as well as as moves back in forth from the historic-present (the voice of the lyric-I who seems to be writing this while sitting on a beach somewhere) to the distant past, to the near past, to the middling past, and so on. The family history of each generation implicates and shapes the fundamental qualities of the next, especially of the poet’s mother and father. I feel as though I’ve come to know this family, to absorb the gist of it as a family, in a wholistic way, as a gestalt; even though, I know that logically that’s impossible. To me, this sense speaks to the skill of this style of integral storytelling. To name a theme, I’d say “we are our stories and that’s both a blessing and a curse to be damaged by, cherished, and transcended.” I marvel at how the poet conveys, not directly, but as a subtext, how difficult it is to be born into any particular family constellation and thrive, to know and feel all a sensitive person, child and then adult, comes to know and must endure, must come to terms with. In that sense, Orphans strikes me as an heroic tale. I feel elevated in the way that poetry enriches my sensibility (language and perceptions heightened), and in the way memoir enriches my connection to the flow of human history: Orphans is a successful and engaging integration of both genres. It’s gotten under my skin.

Rain Taxi Review of Books reviews Orphans


Orphans is now up in the Summer 2016 Online Edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books. Read the review below…..


Joan Cusack Handler

CavanKerry Press ($18)

by James Naiden

This collection of poems is an extended elegy to Joan Cusack Handler’s parents, who were immigrants from Ireland. The lives of the Cusacks were centered around work and belief in the Catholic god—and that meant the rosary, Mass attendance, and being dutiful about it. The poet’s mother didn’t last as long as her spouse, who lived to be ninety-nine. Cusack Handler’s lines are heartfelt bordering on sentimentality at times, but not enough to forget cleavages in any relationship:

Fifteen years she’s gone, there’s still
such regret—never enough
phone calls, secrets, girl talk;
she craved more; I kept her
safe an arm’s length away—that chasm
I constructed to mute the bite of her
silence, innuendo, accusation.

In strong, terse lines the poet conveys her own longing in the aftermath of a parent’s death. Much of this book contains elegies of forgiveness mixed with remnants of anger at both parents. In unrhymed couplets spread across the book’s wide pages, Cusack Handler evokes the frustration of loving a difficult person:

I catch myself praying again.
My mother’s failing.

How long have we left?
She has a right to what love

You can help me feel now, Lord;
she’d know it.

As the poet remembers and depicts her father, she also reflects on her own mortality. Now over seventy, both she and her husband face the inevitable. For this reader, this section is the richest, most moving part of the book. Naturally, the poet examines her own terror of death, and who could blame her? The lines between life and death can blur in an instant.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

In Response to “In the Dry Months”: A Review of Orphans

I posted this East Hampton Star review last week. What follows is my response to a question raised in the first paragraph (I’ve included it below) which ultimately concerns all of us and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

While it is a truth that anyone who lives to old age will experience inevitable deterioration, the facts of each case go universally unacknowledged. The personal reality of decline is hard to express, takes time away from life itself, and conflicts with the abundance narrative — youth, marriage, sex, and childbirth are more celebrated. Who wants to dwell on death?

“Orphans” is a verse memoir about just that.

Who wants to dwell on death? First of all, though I love being mentioned in the same conversation as Eliot, I take issue with the choice of words—loaded as they are— Who wants to dwell on death?  Do they reveal bias on the part of the reviewer? (Rather than ‘wants’ I’d have preferred ‘chooses’ or ‘decides’; for ‘dwell’, perhaps ‘confronts’, ‘faces’, even ‘focuses on’ to describe what motivates those of us who think about death and deal with it in our art). That said, whether subtly advancing his own view or simply reiterating a universe of criticism—literary and non— that exists in the world about the expression in art/life of the less seemly events that arrest us all at some time, the reviewer is making a popular point–It takes time away from life itself.

Who wants to dwell on death?

My answer: No one I know of.

Though the way things work, we have nothing to say about it. Life robs control, smashing us in the gut with some fierce/hideous event. All breath stops.

Head and body explode. Grief is All.

There’s no way out.

Death is part of life. It happens to all of us and must be reckoned with. We have fantasies about it; we’re afraid, even terrified. So we try to deny it, pretend it isn’t there. But why sentence ourselves to the most searing loneliness any of us can imagine? Facing it for the first time when it comes for us. The terror of those last moments is unimaginable.

In my other life, I’m a psychologist in clinical practice and deal all the time with depression, the more ‘seemly’ substitute for anger. Anger with life for the tragedies it inflicts on us, anger with family, with one’s spouse, boss, co-workers, friends. Rather than face it, we turn it in on ourselves in the form of depression, Freud explains when warning of the detrimental psychological effects of repressing or denying feeling. Like a boil that travels through the system in search of other places to break out, repressed feeling erupts in different guises—depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, marital and job related conflict, loss of self-esteem to name a few. Boil or feelings, it can’t be resolved without getting to the core. Just as death IS, and birth IS, feelings ARE. They’re part of every life experience. We don’t choose to have them. They come with the territory.

But we do choose, consciously or unconsciously, how we deal with them.

I recall a conversation with a woman in which I pointed out the fact that though she might confront her anger with her parents, that didn’t mean that as a result, she’d run down Lexington Avenue tearing her clothes off screaming obsenities. Or kill her parents for not loving her. Just so with facing death, grief and loss—our own or a loved one’s—by talking, thinking about, confronting it, we aren’t dooming ourselves to drowning in grief and loss; with time, the pain usually subsides enough to allow us room for other feelings—especially life gifts. The alternative is to remain depressed or arrested emotionally. And utterly alone. Who chooses that?

Regarding our art, what would our critics have us do when such crisis hits? Set it aside completely? As artists we naturally turn to our art to make sense of our lives. To understand what has happened to us. What we feel. And we discover feelings we never knew were there. Receivers, we accept what is given and hopefully express that in the art that feeds and eventually heals us. The art that is our conversation with the world.

Are these tragedies not worthy of art? Isn’t that one of the gifts we look to art/writing for? To help us explore the emotional terrain of experience—the pain and terror as well as the joy?

I didn’t sit down to write poems about my Dad’s death or my mother’s or my own, to ‘dwell on death’ as our reviewer says, but I did sit down with my notebook (my friend) and my sadness and words came that helped me begin to reckon with this great break in my heart. Trusted friends, words helped me find a way through it, and come out on the other side. I never knew what they would say, but words allowed (rather than suppressed) formed poems that told a story—several stories: that of my parents– their beginnings in Ireland, their emigration, our ambivalence, my loss of them, and yes, terror of my own death now that fear of theirs was no longer my protection. This last was a feeling I didn’t know I had. It stunned me and threw me into yet another life crisis; hence the last section of the book.

Writing, as all art, becomes a kind of friendship, a companion we learn to trust. It speaks for the all of us—the parts we know and those we’ve never met. This is the root of art’s gifts –it speaks from the depths of a soul, and, if given rein (that’s where we artists come in), shares its truth with its world.

Finally, all of this discussion reminds me of Hayden Carruth’s poem:

Why speak of

The use of poetry?

Poetry is what uses us.

A Guest Post for Girl Who Reads

An Unexamined Life Stage

by Joan Cusack Handler, Ph. D.| April 18, 2016


I’ve been a psychologist in clinical practice for more than 30 years. Not surprisingly, I’m also a writer who focuses on the emotional and psychological underpinnings of human experience. Committed to meticulously preserving client confidentiality, I never use client’s biographies in my writing; I restrict myself to my own. Hence all four of my books may be considered one biography—focusing on different stages of my psychological life. And because poetry is about discovery, as I reveal myself to my reader, I reveal myself to me.

My most significant discovery in all of my books came with Orphans. Originally entitled Orphaned, I changed the title because I felt that Orphaned sounded whiny and like I was soliciting sympathy. It also restricted itself to me instead of describing generations of people, ultimately all of us.Orphans started out as a tribute to my parents; I was committed to writing their stories after their deaths. In fact, my mother instinctively knew that I would, and laughingly said one day when the mood was graceful and loving between us “…you’ll tell the truth, Joan, even about the bitch I can be.”

Not unlike most sons and daughters with aging parents, I became much more involved in their lives and their care as the years passed. The natural accompaniment to that was that I wrote more about them than I had before. And because my writing reflects what is going on in my life, their illnesses found their way into my poems as did their thoughts and behaviors, my memories, observations, and conclusions.

My mother was the first of my parents to die; that was twelve years ago. I had little time to grieve her because my sister and I immediately set about tending to our father as he tended to himself—cooking, baking bread, vacuuming the living room– and dealt with her loss. Several years passed and a fall in his bedroom sidelined him from most of the things he most valued in life—going to Mass, reading his prayer books, ‘baking the bread’.  The second fall broke his hip. It happened in my home in East Hampton.

Hospitalized in Southampton Hospital, he came through surgery fine, but died within days of pneumonia.

My sister and I and even our estranged brothers were devastated. His loss left a huge hole in my life and my heart. I adored him as did everyone who knew him. I loved talking to him, listening to him—his stories, his wisdom, his wise cracks; I loved making soup for him. His loss was huge, my grief relentless–far reaching and spread over my whole life and family. I became depressed and terrified. Loss became synonymous with terror. I was obsessed with death—his first, then my own. My life diminished to a thin slip of days –the loss far more than the loss of my father. It signaled for me the imminence of my own death. I felt stripped, stalked. My days became very dark and one slid into another without notice. Weeks went by, months, years. I felt alone in a way that I had never felt before. Though I had fancied myself independent of my parents for over 50 years, I felt abandoned by my father. How could I live this life without him?

I was on my own. Despite the closeness and attention of my husband and son and his wife, I felt like I was out there at the end of a very long jetty alone. My life was ending.

I was an orphan—a daughter without parents, no longer blanketed by my father’s love but stripped down to myself alone. What would life be without him? Death was around every corner.

In the beginning I avoided my notebook. I couldn’t write. I was terrified of my notebook. What it would force me to say.

Eventually I picked it up, opened it and wrote– for a few minutes. Weeks, months later, I’d return for a slightly longer time. Twenty minutes. Never more than an hour. I filled one notebook and started another. I made poems of these entries. The poems became the body of the final 20 pages of Orphans. My death terror was finally in writing.

As I do in all of my work, I studied my symptoms in an effort to fully understand what was happening to me. What emerged was a picture of a woman orphaned in her seventies. Vulnerable again in ways she hadn’t been perhaps since childhood. No longer protected. No longer shielded from death. But exposed, threatened. Amazingly, this was a stage of life that I hadn’t heard of. The loss of my parents, yes, the obvious grief and sadness, of course. But the terror? The obsession with my own death? No. For these I was completely unprepared. I had never heard of this before. No psychological theory explained it or predicted it. Professors didn’t focus on it—fellow clinicians didn’t speak of it. Had I missed recognizing this vital stage in my psychotherapy work with clients? I couldn’t think of any, but I understood more deeply what seemed like a friend’s prolonged grief (several years) after her mother died and another’s inability to move into the house her father had lived in and willed to her. I Googled ‘orphaned in adulthood’ and found a few references there.

Fortunately for me, I had the poems. Committed to the truth, I wrote what the poem knew and wanted me to know. It took the poems and the finished book to pull me out of the depression I was arrested in, and it turns out that my project resonated.  “My husband and I often say we’re orphans,” friends told me. “The loneliness was the worst part and the feeling unprotected,” others said. I felt strangely validated and gratified.  If we are not now already orphans, we’ll someday all be—in this together.


This essay originally appeared on the blog Girl Who Reads.




The East Hampton Star

In The Dry Months

By Lucas Hunt|

Joan Cusack Handler

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

— from “Gerontion” by T.S. Eliot

While it is a truth that anyone who lives to old age will experience inevitable deterioration, the facts of each case go universally unacknowledged. The personal reality of decline is hard to express, takes time away from life itself, and conflicts with the abundance narrative — youth, marriage, sex, and childbirth are more celebrated. Who wants to dwell on death?

“Orphans” (CavanKerry Press, $18) is a verse memoir about just that. It is a story told in poetry with a combination of quiet daring and mundane development. The book consists of crisp free verse elevated to the heights of prosaic narrative, but the details are of particular significance. It’s about what it means to lose a mother and a father, and how those losses foreshadow others. If our parents can die, then anyone can.

T.S. Eliot wrote about “The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” Joan Cusack Handler has as well, yet her account of the thing contains a specificity Eliot barely intimated. “Orphans” is divided into equally poignant halves. The first is about the life and times of the poet’s mother, Mary O’Connor Cusack, and consists of more numerous, shorter pieces. The second is about the poet’s father, Eugene Cusack, and made up of fewer, more lengthy pieces. Ms. Handler is honestly fearless in these exploratory memorials to her parents.

The theme of “Orphans” turns something rather rare into something very familiar. While you may not have been born an orphan, you will most likely become one. The double fortune of having parents turns into a double grief when they pass. It’s terrible and ordinary all at once.

One by one, we came,
each emerging from her dark appraisal — for there was
nothing of that harsh branding now. All guile gone —
abundant words of each one’s worth.
It took till she was dying
for her to know we loved her.

This is from the fifth section of a long poem titled “Inoperable.” It’s especially touching as the poet’s mother is the suffering type to begin with. Her personality gets undermined by self-doubt to the degree that she victimizes her own family. Their genuine desire to support her in a time of great adversity is thrown back. The poet reveals the truth of the matter, while struggling to come to grips with her mother’s painful experience.

The poet identifies with her mother, and the writing is dramatic, yet tensionless. It’s daunting to care for the terminally ill, let alone put it into words. Ms. Handler’s poems are often composed in concrete forms. Concrete poetry shapes words on the page into images of recognizable things. While some poets make exact resemblances, such as a poem about pyramids shaped like a pyramid, “Orphans” depicts angelic forms dancing page to page. The poems turn and twist, gyrate and drill into the earth as they rise. The use of concrete forms here is striking, almost violent in a gentle manner.

While “Orphans” does much to further a compassionate narrative toward the old and the dying, it falters in literary achievement. The challenge of emulating a prose memoir is that the story needs movement. The progression from poem to poem here achieves intimacy, but sacrifices lyrical expression while fruitlessly reaching for epic structure. There is little redemption beyond the page. Still, the endeavor is praiseworthy for keeping it real.

Help me find a way to
like her. We deserve it.
I want to respect her.
I want to be able to hold her
when she needs me to. I want to
look into her eyes when she is dying.
I want to give her that.
I want not to look away.

This is from “Lately,” a piece about the failing health of the poet’s mother. It’s an incredibly personal example of the journalistic narrative in “Orphans.” Many reminiscences in the book are successfully infused with voiced interjections by her parents themselves, as if their commentary were never far from mind. Ms. Handler’s account is sporadic and tends toward the anecdotal. However, it gathers force and cohesion toward the second half of the book, which details her father’s demise.

It happened when we got the diagnosis.
Resentment suddenly gone;
only love left — each of us standing in line.

This passage is also from “Inoperable” and portends what we realize is inexpressible. The merit of the work is manifold. With procedural courage, the poetry faces a kaleidoscope of pain while staring at the scars of emotional truth. If language is a running commentary on our broken-down story, who doesn’t want it to pulse with new life?

The second half of “Orphans” is most notable. It is at once laconic, conversational, and rambling, yet empathetic to generational decay. No one is exempt from the conflict. Absence affects us in ways we cannot comprehend. Accidents and injuries dictate our existence in the end. Most of us would like to forget, or at least move on from, the collective fear of death. But here we remember our mother and father.

When did it happen
that the future started
to darken,
pick up speed in that
final sprint that will wipe out all
love from my life?

(A passage from the penultimate piece in the collection, “The Poem.”)

Lucas Hunt is the author of the poetry collections “Lives,” “Light on the Concrete,” and “Iowa,” which is forthcoming. Formerly of Springs, he is the director of Orchard Literary and the founder of Hunt & Light, a publisher of poetry.

Joan Cusack Handler’s books include “Confessions of Joan the Tall,” a memoir. She lives in East Hampton and New Jersey.


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