Orphans by Joan Cusack Handler is an extraordinary memoir and a wonderful new Irish family narrative. But what truly makes this story exceptional is that Handler’s new book is a memoir in verse.
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.
I may not have been born or raised in America, but I completely identify with the Irish Catholic perspective of this piece, and the lacework of memories woven together by Joan’s lyrical language.
Plus Joan’s publisher has provided a copy of her memoir, Orphans, as a prize for one lucky reader. But before I share the details of how to enter, here’s Joan’s beautiful, lyrical Irish Litany …
Irish meant converted bungalows in Throgg’s Neck, the Bronx,
swimming all day in the Long Island Sound,
bare feet, wet bathing suits,
uniforms for school.
Irish meant freckles, scorched skin and blisters,
Dad’s maroon bathing suit belted at the waist,
Mom never wore one. Modesty first,
you and your sister turn away to undress;
Dad never saw her in less than a slip.
Irish meant dreaming of American parents
without that funny way of talking, the frenetic music —
accordions and fiddles, a happy cacophony,
but I longed to fit in.
Irish meant my best friend’s older brothers
doubled over laughing at how I said H.
Irish meant Catholic, the Rosary and grace before meals–
our house, a friend’s, restaurants too—
Friday night pizza after a movie.
Irish meant The Dublin House, Thursday nights, corned beef and cabbage.
Dad’s cousin, Hugh, a bellicose guy
laughing and singing, hiking up his pants.
St Patrick’s night, fiddlers and dancers, Guinness on tap,
soda bread, his specialty, even better than Mom’s.
Irish meant Acts of Contrition on your knees before bed,
listing the day’s sins, begging forgiveness.
Irish meant forbidding emotion—anger, jealousy, and greed.
Irish was suffering;
Pain the path to the Lord’s heart.
Every hurt, slight, rejection, cut, break, or insult welcomed then offered up
for the Poor Souls in Purgatory— that scalding vestibule outside Heaven.
Irish was giving away whatever we got.
Irish meant 6 AM Mass beside Dad
during Advent and Lent,
(why only then?)
Think of all the good you’d collect
for going when you didn’t have to.
Irish was fish Friday nights and in Advent and Lent.
Irish was preparing, apologizing, accepting less—my mother’s small saucer
so much more worthy than our steeped and hefty plates.
Irish meant compelled by commandments—Moses’ Ten, Commandments
of the Church, Mom’s, Dad’s, Sister’s,
Father’s in Confession or at Sunday Mass.
Irish was The Legion of Decency at the back of the church
listing what movies were good and which were condemned.
Irish meant knowing the distance
from venial to mortal,
how sick you had to be
to not go to Mass, say the Rosary in bed.
Prayers before everything—tests, races, dances, meals, bed, school.
Irish was believing Mom and Dad
lived in thatched huts, with goats and cows and
no such thing as school.
Irish was wetting my bed.
Irish was Dad’s funny stories, smoking his pipe—
playing the harmonica, Mom, her accordion,
piggyback rides from the bathroom to bed.
Irish was “I’ll Take you home again, Kathleen”
and “Kevin Barry”, my favorite songs.
Irish was Saturday night’s bath,
Mom finger-waving her hair,
wrapping mine in rags,
Irish was having to be a nun.
Irish was potatoes every night;
everything home made—soda bread, ice cream, tapioca, rice,
bread pudding, dresses, curtains, sweaters, scarves,
Mom pouring Dad’s tea in a china cup.
Irish was novenas to Our Lady, Benediction, First Friday Mass,
My brothers altar boys,
My sister and I the Legion of Mary
No cursing, no swearing, no talk of sex
Immigrant cousins living with us.
Irish meant marching St. Patrick’s Day with the Edgewater Band
the length of Fifth Avenue playing the fife,
The Cardinal and Mayor smiling as we passed.
Irish was a nun for an aunt, a cousin a priest,
Irish was the bishop, his shoes off and collar
sharing a Guinness and laughing with Dad,
Saturday night dances to raise money for his mission,
my blue tulip dress, picking the winner.
Irish was Mom’s flowers–roses, pansies,
hollyhocks, hydrangeas—blooming in the yard,
but plastic inside. Irish was
“Thanks be to God” and “Lord rest his soul.”
Irish was everything—Catholic, the Rosary, the Long Island Sound,
priests, nuns, the Eucharist, prayers before bed and after school,
Irish was Back Home, The Old Country,
my mother and father, The Other Side.
For anyone interested in reading more of Joan’s poetry, her new book Orphans has been very well received. Here’s one of the wonderful reviews on Amazon ….
“In her verse memoir, Orphans, Joan Cusack Handler tackles the big subjects – family history, aging parents, Irish Catholicism, belief and unbelief, and her own impending mortality – with a fierce, wrenching fearlessness.
She creates portraits of her mother and father that are fully rounded, alive, and moving, the central question for the poet not “Who am I?” but “Who were they?” …
“Our terrors take over, pilot us through
this most shaking of times…,”
….writes Handler with force and grace, recognizing that the bright and the dark, love and the absence of love, must always coexist with each other. Orphans is a brave, searchingly honest, and compassionate book.” ~ Elizabeth Spires
About Joan Cusack Handler:
A Bronx native, Joan Cusack Handler is a poet and psychologist in clinical practice. She has two published poetry collections — Glorious and The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making. Her first full length prose book is Confessions of Joan the Tall.
Joan explores the evolution of voice, and its recreation on the page. She is also the founder and publisher of CavanKerry Press, a literary press at the center of a community of poets and readers.
One lucky reader will win a copy of Joan’s new book, Orphans.
To enter just leave a comment on this blog post by noon on Wednesday April 20th, 2016.
Any comment will do. What you write does not affect your chance of winning, but if you need inspiration for your entry why not tell us what it means to you to be Irish..
One winning comment will be chosen randomly. Remember to leave your e-mail so that I can contact you should you win. Your e-mail won’t be published, just used to contact our lucky contestant for mailing of the prize.
The winner will be announced on Wednesday April 20th, 2016, at the bottom of this blog post.
You may check out Irish American Mom’s complete terms and conditions for sweepstakes’ entries by clicking here.
Thanks to everyone who supports this little giveaway by leaving a comment.
Thank You To Joan:
I wish to thank Joan sincerely for sharing her poetry with us today and providing a copy of her book as a prize.
Her words are honest and moving, and resonate with the implications of the complicated relationships many Irish people have with their parents.
However her words do not portray conflict to me, only deep love and loss, joy, tenderness, and acceptance. Thank you Joan for giving us a little glimpse into your Irish soul.
As you journey through life, may you continue to be inspired to write and share the truth of your emotions through verse.
Update – Winner Chosen:
Good news. Our winner has been chosen using the randomized “Pick Giveaway Winner” WordPress plug-in.
Congratulations to …..
I’ll send you a quick e-mail to let you know you are our prize winner.
Thanks to everyone who joined in and entered this little Irish American Mom giveaway.
And a big thank you to Joan for introducing us to her poetry. Wishing her every success with this unique and amazing book.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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