The Red Canoe: Love In Its Making

The Red Canoe: Love In Its Making

The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making is a verse memoir that explores the anatomy of a marriage–underbelly and crown. A practicing psychotherapist and former marriage therapist herself, Handler unveils the multileveled role of parents, children, religion, illness and the emotional/psychological of the two spouses on the frail and treacherous terrain that is marriage. Her gift and that of this book is that she manages a balance of perspectives, one identifies with and empathizes with both spouses. paramount for them, as for all married couples are their primitive conflicting needs to merge and to remain separate. Though poetry, Red Canoe reads like a novel…. A must read for couples, Red Canoe is also a valuable clinical tool. A graceful blend of her experience and wisdom in two professions–poet and psychologist–Handler offers her readers the gift of her honesty, her unflinching commitment to tell the whole story and her trust in the power of hard work in the making of a love-filled and trusting marriage.

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From The Red Canoe:


                      Make room for me on this bed! My husband insists  pushing my debris
from his side to mine.
                                         Jesus Christ! he continues,  You’re buried there!
        Beside me                                     catalogues,
                                                       philharmonic announcements                                        
                                                                                coffee mug,
                                                 Under the covers, trusted blue sweats.

                                                                    I rely on cover.  

                                                             There are boys in this house! My mother chastised me    
as I rushedtothebathroom in my longflannelnightgown.                          
                                                          The only cover that counted to my mother
               was the blue quilted bathrobe that stood stiff
       & prim as an oversized lampshade.
                                                                             (In sixty years of marriage, she bragged,
                               your father never saw me in less than a slip.)

                                                             & I learned from my father  
             when he closed his prayerbook, got up from his chair, stoog in front of the tele-
                                                          vision winding the alarm clock.
                                                                A couple on the screen
                                                             had been kissing too long.
                                                          His big body blocked the kiss.
                                                    It’s time for the Rosary, he would say. 

                                                                                                        Later, in his own dark corner,                                     
                                                                                                       surrounded by scapular, pipe,
                                                                                               teacup, missal, the Catholic News  
                                                                                                  & books of Aquinas & Merton ,           
my father, by example, taught me
                                          to cover
                                          for love.

The Red Canoe

                                                                    It’s all just dry rot! The neighborhood bully
       laughed as he tore off a chunk
                                                                                      of the tired red frame &
               flung it                                                        over   the  fence.
                                       No snap was left        in the wood,
                                 so it gave up easily.
                                                                             Like our marriage,
                         it needed care now        to keep it afloat.

                                                                     But we kids
                                             patched it & kept it
                                                            afloat with

                                                                        I even crossed the Sound in that canoe.
         Took my best friend Kit    who couldn’t swim;
                                                                                         that’s how much I trusted it.
                   Never once capsized    even   when   speedboats circled.
                                      We just held on   &   rode   the  s  w  ells
                          into the wake.
                                                    &  in my Marriage – 
                                this time it was I   who was taken across:
                         my husband so sure,  I   so frightened – 
                                               even after   the Fire,   the deaths,
                           the parade of illnesses,
                                           we held on.
                                                                         Though   now
                                      we fall asleep      hugging pillows
                              on opposite sides     of   the bed.

                                                                                            Suddenly,   I can’t remember
        exactly   what    happened  to the   red canoe
                                                                    & I’m wracking my   brain
                                               trying to recall      its demise
                                         or disappearance.   It’s strange
                                                               how, out of     nowhere
                                                   you’re retrieving     lost love & a kind of
                                                            terror flashes    that provokes the search
                                                 for that other piece      once taken so much
                                                                for granted       that you no longer
                 turned around to watch or tend to it –

                                                                                        like our marriage.
                                         Or the red canoe – 
                                                      we got it            after a great longing.
                                  Then we ate it alive:         dragging it up & down to the beach;
                                     one would finish,          the other would be waiting;
                                                 never let it           rest, be quiet for awhile,
                              until one day it wasn’t         where I left it
                when I turned around to use it.

Praise for The Red Canoe

The Red Canoe is a work of tremendous metaphoric complexity and richness, in which a woman’s pain – braided into a troubled marriage, branded upon an injured body – ultimately finds relief in the transformative power of language. Joan Cusack Handler’s dual guises as therapist and poet merge as one in this healing book which, in the end, is an articulation of a keen intellect animated by heart and hope.

—Raphael Campo, M.D.

When I began to read The Red Canoe... I wondered about the bizarre shapes and halts of the words and ...letters on the page. Slowly, their meaning visited me. These poems invite their reader into private, hidden, unutterable spaces—the cul-de-sac behind the cervix, the gaps between adjoining vertebral bodies, the marriage bed. What courage it must take to see with this dramatic, piercing gaze. In acts not of anatomy but of vivisection, the blade of sight cuts through skin, fat, fascia, down to bone. Handler finds the most fundamental elements of that which is caught in her net—the cruelty of Catholics and Freudians in their ...unforgiving sneers at their deepest selves, the remote but tender silence of the grey-eyed husband who can only steal looks at his wife, the possession so intense of the son that it can only be rendered in prose.

Love here exceeds its bounds. Spilling over into body, food, sex, childhood, appetites, ideas, and pain, the poems achieve a brilliant fusion of the particular and the universal, the seen and the undergone, the body and the self. We are lustier, brawnier, better-fed beings for the prospects of Handler’s gifts.

—Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D, Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

In The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making Joan Handler brings both honesty and balance to the intricate world that is a marriage. Her means are consistently inventive as her lines enact feelings and thoughts. Her focus is unremitting as she makes the reader feel how much pain and glory can go into two people trying to accept one another. This book is unmistakably poetry but has the feel of a novel – one wants to know what will happen to these people.

—Baron Wormser

Further books

  • Orphans
  • Confessions of Joan the Tall
  • GlOrious
  • The Waiting Room Reader: Stories To Keep You Company, Vol.1
  • The Breath Of Parted Lips: Voices From The Robert Frost Place, Vol.1.

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