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.
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, manuscript philharmonic announcements eyeglasses telephone coffee mug, spoon. 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.
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 Love. 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.
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.
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.
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.