This spring, Kate Gale’s Red Hen Press published Brendan Constantine’s fourth poetry collection, Dementia, My Darling. It’s Constantine’s most ambitious, most courageous, and most fully realized collection yet, and invites some retrospection on his not-so-quietly growing reputation.
That reputation startled the larger poetry community when his poem, “The Needs of the Many” (included in the forthcoming volume) appeared on the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-A-Day website. The poem begins:
On the days when we wept —
and there were many — we did it
over the sound of a television …
The poem reminisces on a sustained period of grieving without ever making clear what kind of loss is being mourned, with the result that the feeling is both specifically felt and widely applicable. By the end of the poem, the speaker has arrived at a terrible yet credible conclusion, that “this may be the only sweetness left, / to have a few griefs we cherish / against the others, which are many.” The poem appeared the morning after the Daesh terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, and caught the zeitgeist in the palm of its hand.
It’s tempting to say that Constantine’s career started with a bang. Letters to Guns, his first collection, came out from Red Hen in 2009, and from the title to the last page, the reader was invited into an imagined-yet-real place. The book is organized loosely around a central poetic conceit. Popping up through the 42 poems are a series of eight “letters” written to guns — specific military rifles, target pistols, firearms throughout history — by other inanimate objects, such as a boot, or a grove of trees, or an abandoned Chevrolet. The letters employ various levels of diction, occasional archaic spellings, historic references, and gangster slang; the overall effect is never less than violent, harrowing, coolly ironic:
My heart, though halved, hungers for news
of you, but I cannot say with certainty where
I will be in the time it takes for your response
to find me. It seems the essence of war
has become the burning of maps.
Perhaps it is best that you send word
home. Perhaps it will draw me there.
At this point, I must admit I am usually skeptical, even perhaps prejudiced, when it comes to books of poetry (and even issues of journals, such as the January 2016 “Ecopoetry” issue of Poetry) that have been organized in a conscious, deliberate way around a central theme or idea or metaphor or “conceit” or what-have-you. In my experience, such collections almost always tend to be assembled by an editor who must, so to speak, keep one eye on the poems and another on The Overarching Theme, making sure that the first fits the second — as though fitting the body to the suit. The poems take on some sort of “duty” to illuminate or contribute to the theme, which interferes with their primary duty, which is simply to be poems.
I never feel this skepticism when I read Constantine’s books. I feel, instead, that he has found an organic and persuasive kind of verbal magnet that attracts the individual poems to a center of energy. The theme — guns in one case, dementia in another — does not limit the range of what the poems may discuss. It opens the sluices of metaphorical connection. It organizes the poems in an emotionally powerful but in nonspecific way, almost the way the news of David Bowie’s death one Sunday night organized the hours of our day the next Monday.
The effect this organization has on the experience of reading Letters to Guns is startling. The reader senses that each individual poem is somehow haunted by its (real or potential) proximity to one of these letters, which adds layers of contextual meaning that operate independently of that poem’s imagery or narrative situation. The poems know that a gun means something terrible has happened, and their shape is harder and wiser for it. From “Short Cut”:
Don’t stop. It’s nothing you did.
Just head for the cemetery. Five
or six graves in there’s a statue
of Clio, the muse of history.
Look where she’s pointing.
In Dementia, My Darling, the terrible thing that has happened is also named in the title. Call it dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility, or one of grandma’s bad days, age-related loss of memory is one of the scariest humiliations that await us on our way to the grave. The book’s dedication page is harsh: “In memory of memory,” it reads, with a gallows-humor lilt to its voice.
Joan Didion famously reminded us that we tell ourselves stories in order to live; one day Didion, too, will start forgetting her stories, as we will start forgetting ours, and on that day our lives will begin their downward arc. But here’s the paradox: the act of writing is at its base one of preservation, with the writer/poet essentially One Who Preserves. How can the poem preserve the process by which preservation-as-such decays?
Constantine poses this question both in the structure of the book as a whole and in particular poems. The most radical moment is the middle section, a “separate book” with its own Foreword, Acknowledgments, and Index of Titles and First Lines, a remarkable self-contained poem which the reader is invited to deconstruct and reassemble:
A bare bed, a bear bulb, an eyeless bear, 25
Adieu, Monsieur Singe, 12
After the sea comes more sea, 1
Ambient Writing for Profit, 1
At noon we ate the paintings, 31
Auntie Aircraft, 36
(“Index of Titles and First Lines”)
We see how the first line of “Ambient Writing for Profit” reads — or how that poem would begin, were it to exist. But these traces are all that is left of an erased book.
Similarly, the title poem performs a heartbreaking act of syntactic disjunction that represents the mind’s incoherence without losing any poignancy. The poem’s source text is his mother’s statement: “If someone finds me on the road in my nightgown, barefoot and talking, or if I’m throwing money to the cars convinced I’m just feeding the ducks, please lock me away and life your life.” By the end, the poem is enacting its own erasure:
if my talking convinced someone,
my barefoot lock on the road,
ducks in the cars throwing money to live
and the feeding finds me
and I’m me
or I’m your life
please just nightgown away
(“Dementia, My Darling”)
I spoke with Brendan Constantine on New Year’s Day, in the back garden of poet/photographer Holaday Mason’s beautiful Venice home. Mason, like Constantine, is a Red Hen Press poet; her narrative poem The Red Bowl was published this year.
JAMES CUSHING: All of your books share the idea of the poetry volume as a consciously crafted assemblage whose the goal is a “total statement” greater than the sum of its parts — as opposed to the Ashbery/Ginsberg/Rich concept of the book as simply a collection of poems written recently. I know you must have spent time thinking about this issue.
BRENDAN CONSTANTINE: I have always read poetry for the pleasure of reading poetry, not as a thing to analyze. I’ve never tried to write A Book Of Poems. I write poems, and over a period of time, I found that — knock on wood — it’s been an organic process, where I haven’t consciously said This Is Your MO — pieces will start talking to each other, pieces develop a relationship to each other.
You’re always working something out. A poet named Betsy Sholl gave me a liberating piece of advice. “Don’t let a recurring image be a reason not to write just because you’ve been there before. You’re clearly working something out. If your poetry’s an extension of your consciousness, if there’s that need, then there’s something there for you to investigate.”
Letters to Guns came about through the internet. I was lost in the great book of the internet one day and I came upon a page with a caption reading “Letters To Guns.” I thought, “Are people actually writing letters to guns? Wow! I had no idea!” It turned out it was the classified letters-to-the-editor section of Guns magazine! So I started writing poems with that idea.
I thought of writing a letter to a gun from a victim of a gun, but then I thought that would be very difficult to write or to read. So I made the letters from other objects, so that way I can control, or give the illusion of control, over the humanity of the thing. What I mean by that is — if I wrote a poem called “To a .38 Special From a 5-Year-Old Boy Who Was Shot,” that’s not a poem I would read, it’s a poem from which I would recoil. But it might be one that needs to be read/heard. How do I get into that area? Well, if the objects are writing/speaking, the objects are going to be people. Maybe there’s a degree of remove.
I found myself with eight letters and no impulse to write more. There was no anti-gun or pro-gun letter, just poems that worked on their own. But then a book began to emerge. The three acts of the book gave it a sense of being a complete thing. In each case, I’m trying to assemble books that you could read in any direction. Our relation to a book of poems is a strange thing; the closest parallel would be a book of short stories, or a miscellany — or a fashion magazine! I came to poetry that way. As a kid, I tended to open poetry books in the middle, usually because I was impatient. I was a poor reader, a late reader, and I think I went into poetry looking for the shortest one, one I could hold onto, like WCW. I found that a lot of people picked up on poems that way, just as they’d go through a catalog of paintings. That’s one approach, but I suppose you could read it sequentially too.
I like the idea of an individual poem you can revisit, and I like the idea of a book that would invite multiple readings in different directions. Depending on the direction you took, you’d have a different experience of the book as a whole.
I could find a thesis in all this — you are working something out in all this. You’re still in a period of your life making observations, and chances are they are related in some fashion. So I found in each of these books, there was a thesis of some kind. At the least, a segment of the psychology. With Letters to Guns, as you read it, eight letters would arrive on this subject, providing contexts that allow you to enjoy the poems as you read them.
The new book does this to the extreme. Although, in each book, there are poems that are quite old, predating the concept that united them. Dementia, My Darling has early pieces that uncannily supported the larger idea, which was our relationship with memory and the book that we are assembling all the time in our memories.
I have a morbid preoccupation with death and existential depression that does seize me at times. I’m not so spiritually fit that I don’t freak out about knowing that I’m going to die. It hits me at three or four in the morning. I’ve lost members of my family, friends, lovers, and I’m sometimes seized with the notion that there’s no stone, no statue, no blade of grass I can cling to that will keep me from being swept off into the black.
Have you ever noticed on a roller coaster, there’s this one initial hill they like to drag out, chicka-chicka-chicka, and your mind gets very sensitive to it, super aware of what’s going to happen to you. That moment of awareness is so sharp that your entire life before that moment feels like something that took about 15 minutes. My fear of death has that sense that, not only will it come, but when it does, my whole life will have felt unfairly short, a little blip and now it’s over. That’s terrifying! But in those moments, I have found myself wondering, okay, so what’s the story of my life? Is there an arc? I was born here and had this journey, which led me to this point, and here’s the great closing metaphor for my life, its note, its color. When someone else does, we can’t help but look for a pattern. We might call a death tragic, mistakenly casting that whole life as a tragic one.
This is a long way of explaining that in Dementia, My Darling, some pieces seem to lead up to thinking about one’s life as an arc, a complete thing. Other pieces concern memory as a book that is burning as it is being written, even changing the order of its pages as we’re reading it. The middle section of this book is a book that’s falling apart. There are poems that riff on the conventions of a book. There’s an acknowledgment page, an afterword, an index of titles and first lines — those are all one-line poems, none of the page numbers correspond to poems in the actual book, but if you match them, you’ll find errata, things withdrawn, and that’s the great disintegrating book of the mind. The third act is the — okay, now what? Moving on and continuing to assemble the book of memory.
A lot of this was motivated by coincidences. In 2009 I met Gary Glazner, a poet from New York who was doing a lot work at the Bowery Poetry Center. He started to develop poetry workshops for people with dementia. I had lunch with him one day and he started telling me about these workshops, why he felt they were important, and the discoveries he was making when he took poetry to elder care centers. He was making connections with people who otherwise seemed adrift, in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Doug Kearney was with us. Gary asked us if we’d like to join him in this, and we said, “That’d be wonderful! Just give us a call and we’ll set it up!” “No,” said Gary, “grab the check and we’ll go. Why do you think I chose this restaurant? We’re right around the corner from the home! We’re going right now!” Twenty-five minutes later, Gary had me and Doug Kearney arm-in-arm, do-si-do-ing in the middle of an elder care center to “Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright,” round and round in a circle laughing, and all these old folks clapping and reciting with us. He’d worked pure magic, and we thought, “Shit yeah, we’ll do this!”
So I started hitting eldercare centers. I went to ones in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Arizona, New Hampshire … I was astonished by what I discovered. I’m not a therapist or a doctor, but what I noticed was, whenever I did one of these workshops, there were one or two people who at the beginning had seemed unapproachable but at the end were smiling and engaged and seemed to be comfortable where they were. Not disoriented. Everybody had been acknowledged, everybody had been looked in the eye and had their hand shaken — and nobody had asked to leave. Everyone had been made tranquil. Considering that these were people who, when a truck sounded a horn outside, would get scared and ask what was going on — but for the poetry hour, they were with me. Some of these folks could not carry on a conversation; that did not change by the end of the class — but for the class period, they were all engaged. I began to interact and see commonalities, and that began to inform my writing.
There’s something unusual going on with the syntax of the title poem …
There’s a secret to this title poem that I’m not sure I want to reveal! My mother was concerned about dementia; she noticed as she aged that other aspects of her life were shrinking. There’s no evidence of senility in the family, but she has developed a pronounced tremor, and walking is hard, but she insists, “I’ve still got my brain; I’m still sharp as a tack.” She lives in physical pain with arthritis because she’s afraid of dulling her awareness with anything strong. But then she thought, “Jesus, if dementia does happen, I can’t have my kids stopping their lives to feed and change me, I have to let them go.” So she really said, “If I’m out in the street in my nightgown, or if I’m throwing away family money to ‘feed the birds,’ please lock me away and lead your lives!” She’d said it more than once.
I wanted to write about senility but I was afraid to, because the subject matter was not mine. I’ve never been concerned with accessibility, but I do want to be useful. I suddenly heard this thing my mother had been saying, and thought, “That’s the way into the poem — to look at the way dementia worked on memory, the losing track of it, the way memory disintegrates and reintegrates. If I deconstruct a piece of speech uttered on this subject, maybe it will epitomize itself! I’ll take a statement by someone frightened of dementia and have it dement.” I took mom’s sentence and began to pull it apart, change the order of the words until just the ghost of an order remained.
And here’s the confession: I found a form that had been created as kind of satirical joke, Billy Collins’s “paradelle,” which I followed exactly. When you’re trying to impose form on your memory, that form is doomed. The form can’t sustain itself — there’s no mathematic that will make it work at the end but it will not be “explainable.” There will be a hermetic dimension to it.
Instead of being statements, the words become descriptions of a trap. Also, this poem, like some others in the book, makes significant use of physical space on the page in a way that a reader can see, but no listener could actually hear. Would you say something about these poems in connection with your public performances of them? I ask you this question because you grew up in a household in which performance was your bread and butter.
I come from a family of actors who have a great reverence for poetry. Dad [Michael “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Constantine] has always enjoyed poetry he can have in his mouth; he would recite Shakespeare and Edith Sitwell in equal measure. Mom put Auden quotes up on the wall and loved both Gerard Manley Hopkins and Kenneth Patchen. She’s quite a wonderful poet herself. I like hearing poetry, I like seeing poets read, and when I write things, if it goes into a book, I think I should be able to read it aloud.
At the same time, I think a poem on a page needs to be a complete experience. It has to work on its own on the page. I’ll do all kinds of stuff when I’m assembling for the page to find what would be an interesting reading. I still like playing with the poem’s look on the page, because you prepare to read something based on its shape. When you walk across a high school classroom with a piece of paper, any teenager can tell if you’re carrying a multiple-choice exam. Any adult knows what a tax form looks like.
I’m always discovering new things. I found 10 or 15 years ago that I liked the way a forward slash ( / ) looks, and a lot of my poems use that as punctuation. I found that people intuitively read the slash as a pause, but it’s not as definite as a comma or a period or a stanza break. I like to think that someone could read this aloud with audible uncertainty in their voice and that the poem would still work.
I don’t know what people will make of the poem “Index of Titles and First Lines,” if they’ll think that it’s misplaced or an error or if they’ll go through the book wanting to match up the page numbers … I’m hoping that if people sit with it long enough, they’ll realize it’s its own thing. Anything that can make a poem more pan-dimensional is absolutely worth exploring. Any good surrealist will look at a piece of work and consider all the possible misinterpretations of that piece and see if those offer any valuable fruit.
There’s a moment in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth where Gulley Jimson is explaining to a woman how to look at a painting of a nude in a tub. “That’s not just any woman,” says Jimson, “that’s a woman of women, and that’s not just a tub, that’s the tub of tubs. You could live a million years and never see a tub like that.” The lady says, “that’s silly; who lives a million years?” Jimson says, “well, a million people every 365 days.”