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.


Now that Orphans is published and no longer mine alone, I’m feeling a bit lonely. I don’t have my ‘baby’ to tend to anymore (and that truly is a loss after so many months/(years!!) of obsessing,) and I certainly don’t have my next project in mind nor do I have room for it emotionally–that will take time.  And though Orphans is still center for me, now it belongs to its readers. So I’m delighted when one of them/(you?) leaves a question, or comment, about the book or poetry or writing. It’s a better treat than chocolate. Or pizza. We’ve included a response button at the end of every blog piece posted, so feel free. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s start a conversation.

I mentioned feeling lonely, how so? you may ask. It’s been a strange month—no readings since the book party, so I’ve felt somehow cut off until last Wednesday evening when I had the honor of reading at the American Irish Historical Society. There were three poets reading–Chris Cahill (Executive Director of the Society) and his poet collaborator friend, John Lilly, both of whom delighted us by reading alternately “Math”, their poem in many parts, each ending with the line ‘do the math.’ The result: a banquet of sumptuous language, humor and thought. Very Irish indeed. A natural team—as if literary brothers –their voices, both distinct, blend gracefully together. Thank you to Chris for creating the event and inviting me to participate.

To prepare for that reading, I reread Ophans several times and chose the poems that would form the arc of the reading. Then I rehearsed several times over the next few days. I’ve never done that before—I usually start thinking about what I want to read a few days before but only rehearse an hour or two on the day of the reading. And because I can never make up my mind, I don’t make final choices until I’m actually reading. Though the readings generally go fine, I’m usually anxious throughout.

I wanted it to be different this time. And it was. I gave the book, myself and my listeners the benefit of extended preparation which set me at ease and made it easier for me to make contact with the audience.  In the reception that followed several people asked about the architecture of Orphans—the central question: Was writing in 3 voices the biggest challenge of writing the book? My answer, a somewhat shortened version of what follows.

Writing in three voices was not the most challenging aspect of the project. Rather it was one of form. What initially had been prose sections collated and finessed from conversations with both of my parents that I had taped, were transcribed in prose and seemed initially to be natural to their speech, eventually became poems. The original shape of the book involved my parents each having prose sections and I one of poetry. A friend who loved the book in this form commented casually that someday she’d love to hear my parents’ voices in poems. Though she wasn’t asking me to make the change with Orphans but with some future writing, it immediately hit me that I had to try it with Orphans. When a strong reader suggests a way to strengthen one’s work, we have to pay attention. So I went back to the drawing board and set out to see if I could make poems of my parents’ words.

Finding the line and form for each of them was a wonderful creative and learning experience. I started out, not surprisingly, attempting to fit them into my signature form which for those of you who know my poetry follows the emotional tone of the voice and therefore calls for a variety of placements on the page and the use of the whole page as the space in which the poem is brought to life. I believe that words are alive and that they have multiple ways of enhancing each other based on the way they are placed on the page. It’s not in any way traditional except in its intent—to recreate the voice on the page. This is how my poems speak. How I speak. But I soon found out that it’s not how my parents speak. It amazed me to discover that my parents’ voices would not follow/mimic mine– that each had a voice of his/her own that would best be transmitted in more traditional lines and form. After much exploration, I discovered that the form natural to my mother was couplets; for my father, who refused to speak in couplets, it was traditional lines in longer stanzas of irregular length. Need I say that I was exhilarated when these forms unveiled themselves to me.   

Finding the poetry or rather releasing the poetry in my parent’s voices and committing it to lines pleased me more than any other aspect of creating this book. As most would agree the Irish accent and vocabulary are very musical, and, as I found out, are all the more musical and natural unfolded in lines. To find the poetry in them and join it with my own was/is an enormous gift to myself and to my parents. This book presents my parents as real people—complete with all their flaws and graces; I’d be remiss if I didn’t showcase the beauty of their voices.

Nin Andrews interviews Joan Cusack Handler

Orphans is such a powerful and heart-breaking memoir. I thought maybe I’d start the interview by asking for an excerpt from “No Day Was Brighter:” on page 39, beginning on page 39: “I’ve spent my life trying to explain/my mother . . . and ending with “God stealing her mother in every /face and gesture for the rest of her days.”

You were named after your grandmother who died in childbirth when your own mother was six. And you resembled your grandmother. How does one pronounce Siobhan, the Irish name for Joan? Did you feel as if somehow you were her mother? I’m thinking of these lines:

I’m named for my mother’s
mother. Siobhan translated
is Joan. Perhaps
that explains what goes on
between me and my mother.

Siobhan is pronounced Sha Vaughn (as Joan tells us in Confessions,it rhymes with fawn.
I felt like her mother in the sense that I felt responsible to make her happy and responsible for her sadness. As a child and as an adult. The lines refer to my feeling that she put all her hopes in me— I was her mother’s replacement so she was particularly possessive of me. With that as a background, our relationship was very complicated.

When I was reading Orphans, I was so swept up in your telling—it was as if your words were waves washing over me. And in the early section of the book, you wrote about a beach vacation. Did you start writing this when you were in Aruba? How did the book begin?

The book began with the mother poems –the ones in my voice. My husband and I are great fans of cruises—particularly transatlantic ones. In the presence of the ocean or sea, I often feel inspired. If I’m not writing, I’m reading and vice versa. “Orphan at Sea”– the Aruba poem was written on a Caribbean cruise and is one of the oldest in the book.

I tend to write in clusters of poems. And in both cases, I wrote a great deal when my parents were close to the ends of their lives.

When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my friend Karen Chase, suggested that I record her voice and my father’s. I did that. Though unsure of how I would use those conversations, I knew I wanted to write about my parents. At some point. What better way than to let them tell their own stories. My assistant, Donna Rutkowski, transcribed those conversations and I edited them as prose. When the book was 90% finished, another friend, Carol Snyder, commented that someday she’d love to hear my parents’ voices in poems. Needless to say, I couldn’t ignore what I thought was a brilliant idea, so I decided to try. The result are the Mother and Father Speaks sections. That process was amazing. I elaborate on it further down.


Read the full interview here.

Personal Perspectives: Published on Psychology Today


I can count on my one hand the women I know—friends or patients—whose relationship with their mothers is not the root of their most troubled selves. Virtually every woman I know has a complex relationship with her mother. (The same is true with men and their fathers, but it’s mother and daughter that I’m concerned with here.) It was certainly the most contentious relationship in my own life.

Continue reading on Psychology Today.

“Irish Litany”: Published on Irish American Mom


As you my readers know, I love poetry and all the nuance, paradox and emotion conveyed by the magical manipulation of words.  When I heard from Joan, a native of the Bronx, raised in an Irish family, I was captivated by the idea of a memoir in verse.

And so I asked Joan if she would like to write a guest post for my blog, to introduce you to her writing.  As a theme for her piece, I suggested she focus on what it means to her to be Irish, and to share her Irish American story.

When I read her submission, I was blown away. As Joan wrote, her answer turned into verse, memories coming to life through familiar names, places and an Irish American backdrop that influenced and illuminated every moment of her childhood.

I am honored to publish Joan’s poem, Irish Litany, here today. I hope her poetic words will resonate with you, as they did with me.

Continue reading here.

Joan Cusack Handler on The Lanada Williams Show

Are you living in the past? Anger? Resentful of a family member or parent​? Learn tips to overcome these movements and meet Joan Cusack Handler poet and psychologist explore her family’s history of depression and resentment with poetry.

Listen in here.

Orphaned in Adulthood

My dual roles as poet and psychologist prepared me well to confront my own and my parents’ love and loss, joy, resentment, anxiety, dependency, tenderness, and terror. All collided in what may be considered the most vulnerable of adult life stages: when we all become orphans.

Continue reading »

In Defense of Personal Poetry

Political poetry, the poetry of nature and the poetry of ideas have long been well regarded and published. Not so, however, with what I call personal poetry ( often mistakenly referred to as ‘confessional’ poetry) which focuses on the emotional/psychological fabric of the individual that dictates who we are in relation to ourselves and the people in our lives—spouses, parents, children, friends, bosses, enemies etc.

That is not to say that some emotions are not well represented in poetry. Love—lost, found or recognized certainly is; sex is (in some arenas), of late anger is, but anger directed toward society or government. Righteous anger. But what of the less socially acceptable, less seemly anger that lurks inside each of us in the darkness reserved for the forbidden. Anger at spouses, parents, children, siblings, anger at illness, death. What about greed, envy, jealousy, shame? What about physical and psychological pain? Aren’t these appropriate territory for poetry? How about our primitive wishes to merge and our adolescent struggle to assert ourselves and our adult needs for both? The eternal battle of intimacy that is the fact at the base of every relationship. Self-doubt regarding religious or political beliefs is more acceptable than the self- doubt that makes us afraid to commit, to parent, to encounter new people or welcome new ventures.

Continue reading »

Hello Again!

I’ve been asking myself why I wanted to revitalize this blog. There were several reasons for my disappearance, not the least of which was the loss of a devoted friend who was my partner when I started CavanKerry Press. Absorbing all of my focus, my life-giver in the face of this loss became my latest book, Orphans. I want to talk about orphans on this blog, about losing parents or close ones well after childhood…but I want to know you too, your books, your thoughts and feelings. About poetry. About literature in general. About life.

What I’m hoping to do is to convince you that poetry is a worthy art and is necessary to all of us.

With this blog, I’m joining my lives, my loves: my profession as a poet and also as a psychologist. My belief in the psyche and the unconscious and the ways each get played out in our lives—with ourselves, with spouses, parents, children, friends.

Continue reading »

To Each Our Own

This is part an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   You can see the full series here.

Before ending, (or perhaps the better word is interrupting), this ongoing discussion of voice, which began with a gift from Allen Ginsberg teaching us that to write good poems we had to write bad ones, then lead to my own journey and expanded into a theory about voice in general, it is important to perhaps restate the obvious: namely, that voice is the single most significant source of the poem and the one thing that makes it uniquely and utterly our own. It cannot be duplicated. On the other hand, technique and craft are shared. They are learned. While each of us select what works best for our poem, technique is mechanical; it is device, and therefore, it is known. But voice is unknown. It’s that door opening inside us revealing that place where our soul lives. And given our willingness and commitment to listen, to wait and record, we are rewarded with the soul’s conversation offered up in its unique language, logic, imagery and form.  This is the bedrock and brilliance of the poem. This is the gift

Finally, it is this intimacy between poet and soul that not only gives us the poem and its readers, it is also our antidote for envy—this voice that is our gift, this that we may learn to love, this that makes our own art separate and original and lasting, this like no other.


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