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Dementia, My Darling
by Brendan Constantine
63 Poems/ 103 Pages/ $11.95
Red Hen Press
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
In the May 12th issue of the New York Review of Books, Hon. Jed S. Rakoff discusses the law
and its concern with 'cognitive neuroscience'. He begins by defining it: the scientific study of
how the brain relates to the mind. It is a complex science with deep questions about the actual
function of the mind as well as contradictory findings about the brain's involvement with it.
Brendan Constantine's book, Dementia, My Darling, enters this mysterious world and, as the
title suggests, examines the relationship between the perceptions of our surroundings as well as
those around us. Constantine's curiosity in these matters is prolific and there are few subjects
that escape his view. With a voice ranging from respectful to playful, he presents his subjects
like a museum curator building a diorama. But on closer look, the diorama is skewed, a
collection of perceptions and experiences that do not fit with what we define as "normal". This
creates a tension throughout the book that has us questioning what is real and what we believe
to be so.
In "Another Natural Cause" he looks at the unlikely fact that more people die from falling out of
bed than others killed by "tigers, sharks, crocodiles". These are mostly "small children, the elderly,
people who can dream too hard". Interestingly, dreamers are included with the vulnerable
children and aged as if their ability to dream with this intensity causes them to enter some
"…Tonight, while we go
to school naked, get chased by bees,
discover we can fly, a few of us
pass into nothing, into bright light,
into marble stations of cloud."
Dementia, My Darling is a poet's journey through a world that is "mis-perceived", where memory
becomes tenuous and the characters in the poems deal with surroundings that are a warped by
the funhouse mirror of their mind. "In the Ear of Our Lord", even common phrases are twisted,
though one does not know if it is by the speaker or the one addressed.
"In the beginning was the whirr,
I thought you said, & the whirr
Didn't you say, each verse
should end on a pyramid"
Closer observation of the poem reveals that there is no punctuation, no periods or pyramids or
anything else. It is as if the narrator needs to verify the phrase before he can embellish it with
the tools of meaning. This is indeed a stark world.
Perhaps the most poignant poem in this collection is "Dementia, My Darling", based on words
spoken by the poet's mother. The opening lines are
" If someone finds me on the road
If someone finds me on the road
In my nightgown, barefoot and talking…"
From there the speaker's words become repetitive, making less sense with every repetition. The
words, however, are heartfelt, as if spoken to someone to whom the narrator cares about yet
cannot communicate. The poem itself is an homage not only to those who cannot find the words
but those who desperately seek to find the meaning of those words through the fog of
Alzheimer's. (There is a video clip of the poet performing this poem that captures the love and
the pain of these lines and I recommend watching it.)
Poetry is a genre that is meant to communicate meaning by way of metaphor, image and a
variety of other language tools. Constantine uses these same tools to examine how mis-
communication can convey meaning as well. Like a jazz master finding new expressions in a
constantly evolving riff, he finds his meaning in the chaos of an increasingly surrealistic world.
That which is confusing on its surface is examined until the truth lurking within it is exposed.
Dementia, My Darling is a powerful book yet it is written with empathy and respect. It shows us
a different way to extract meaning when it is not readily perceived. Like Dante, the poet asks
you to accompany him on this exploration of an unfamiliar terrain. Like Dante, a reader passes
through this world and receives a different perspective of the landscape we thought we knew.
Such is the power of Brendan Constantine's art.