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In Response to “In the Dry Months”: A Review of Orphans - Joan Cusack Handler

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

July 8, 2016

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.

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