Brendan and the Brain

Brendan Constantine discusses the curious connection between aphasia and poetry.

8 mins read
Brendan Constantine looking at the camera
Brendan Constantine. Photo: Repix

June is Aphasia Awareness Month and the month for national observances regarding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. These aspects of brain function are the unlikely creative focus for poet and educator Brendan Constantine, who has published three volumes of poetry with Pasadena’s Red Hen Press.

A close up of a person in a dark room
Constantine’s portrait of his father, the late actor Michael Constantine. Photo: Brendan Constantine

We chatted with the poet on Sunday, May 5, Greek Orthodox Easter, just a week ahead of Mother’s Day. The son of actor Michael Constantine who memorably played the Windex-wielding patriarch Gus Portokalos in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Brendan stays close to home in West Hollywood whenever possible.

He needs to be in proximity to his mother, who, while entirely lucid and mentally sharp and still writing, now has limited physical mobility. He shared two poems he wrote referencing her:

World’s End
My mother is sleeping while you read this,
white hair spread across a pillow. 
She’s on her back, mouth open, and—you 
need to know this—her teeth are gold 
and china. The radio is playing, low,
a classical station, some opera or other
where people die believing love can be lost 
in a crowd. My mother breathes 
like a gallery, like a hundred paintings 
of old ships. This really does concern you
because the sea is at your door. Because 
my mother sleeptalks on your behalf.
Because it gets late so early now. 

This poem originally appeared in The Poetry Review, UK, Vol 112, No 4, Winter 2022.

A sandwich sitting on top of a bed
Constantine’s mother and her cat during lockdown. Photo: Brendan Constantine

As of 2016, almost three million people were known to have aphasia in the United States, and the numbers are rising. According to the National Aphasia Association, more people have some form of Aphasia than conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or muscular dystrophy. Aphasia is discussed with increasing frequency these days since actor Bruce Willis went public with his diagnosis in 2022. 

Dementia, My Darling

Poem made from lines spoken by my mother

                        If someone finds me on the road
            If someone finds me on the road
in my nightgown, barefoot and talking
in my nightgown, barefoot and talking
            If my talking nightgown 
                        finds the road in me 
                                    and someone on barefoot
                        Or I'm throwing my money to the cars
            Or I'm throwing my money to the cars
convinced I'm just feeding the ducks
convinced I'm just feeding the ducks
            I'm feeding the money, 
                        the cars, or the ducks,
                                    I'm just convinced to throwing
                                                Please lock me away
                                                     Please lock me away
                                                              and live your life
                                                              and live your life
                                                     and lock your life away
                                                Please live me
                        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           

This poem currently appears in the collection “Dementia, My Darling,” 2016 Red Hen Press.

Constantine, who consistently reminds us that he is not a clinician or neurologist, describes the condition this way:

“Aphasia is a neurogenic communicative disorder or cognitive impairment to the language centers of the brain. It generally manifests as an inability to recall words or to name objects or as a profound difficulty in speaking, reading, or writing. At base, it is a radical disorder of linguistic communication. The most common cause is stroke, but it can also arise from blunt force trauma, brain tumors, infections, and, of course, dementia. Aphasia can be so severe as to make communication all but impossible, or it can be very mild, appearing in only a single aspect of usage. More commonly, however, multiple aspects of communication are impaired. Remarkably, many people with even severe aphasia are otherwise cognitively intact; they can drive cars, go shopping, and navigate their usual lives.”

The condition sometimes begins to show itself with a curation of words that may seem inspired and intriguing to the poetic imagination rather than impaired.

The language produced may be cryptic, like the coded revelation of an oracle, or dreamy, like the seemingly nonsense phrases we murmur when falling asleep. For instance, instead of saying “I can’t fathom it, I’ll need to ponder,” someone with aphasia might say, “I can’t phantom it, I’ll need to conjure,” an example drawn from my own experience.

A close up of a desert field with a mountain in the background
Photo: Brendan Constantine

The poet found himself embarking on this surprising path in 2009 when he first collaborated with fellow poet and educator Gary Glazner. Glazner had recently developed a project called the Alzheimer’s Poetry Workshop, a means of bringing poetry to people in various stages of dementia.

In 2017, this work brought Constantine to the attention of a speech pathologist named Michael Biel. Biel and his wife, librarian and educator Francie Schwarz, had set up a book club specifically for people living with aphasia and traumatic brain injuries.

Biel noted that in the first year of sessions, whenever the group chose a book of poetry as their monthly selection, participation tended to be more lively, the participants more engaged. 

Constantine says, “One might naturally assume that the LAST thing a person with aphasia would want to approach is poetry. Why on earth would someone who struggles to communicate want to engage with an artistic use of language? Wouldn’t that simply add complications?”

“The hardest lesson for anyone who writes, I think, is becoming willing to release control and let the poem happen.”

Brendan Constantine

The corrective, conventional therapies then in practice yielded only limited results, while exposure to poetry, including writing, reading, and even singalongs, liberated the muse – or at least the spirit of Hermes, messenger-god of communication – in participants who may no longer recognize written text.

The reason for the singalongs? There’s strong evidence that lyrics to songs are stored and accessed in a different part of the brain than other types of speech processing.

The team began developing poetry workshops for these individuals because nothing of the kind existed at the time. Recently, Brain Injury Alliance of Wisconsin (BIAW) emerged from these workshops and now offers two books of poetry written by brain injury and aphasia survivors.  What’s especially fascinating is the ways in which Constantine’s work with this group of writers dovetails with his Creative Writing curriculum at the prestigious Windward School in West Los Angeles, where he has taught middle and upper school since 2004.

Constantine reasonably encourages anyone he encounters with these conditions to see a speech therapist, but the healing narrative does not end there. A commonality with both groups is learning to resist the urge to correct.

“In my opinion,” says Constantine, “so-called writer’s block is almost never an actual lack of inspiration. It’s actually our inability to silence the inner critic. That’s why the first poetry chapbook published by the BIAW is titled ‘I don’t think I did this right.’ Every artist can get stopped in their tracks by self-doubt. When I’m bringing poetry to a group, I encourage them to stop playing the information game but go toward feeling. A phrase may be factually wrong, but emotionally correct.”

Although he is intrigued by the unfolding of modern neurology, Constantine maintains that a poem is not a problem to be solved. In his poem “A Tour de Force,” he writes:

Imagine if 
everything you saw was 

printed inside your skull where people could see it
after you died… 

Of course, you can’t find 
anything in my head that looks 

like a sunset or a toy horse,
it’s all just goo in there,
that’s what memories become, 

dark water and milk. You 
could no more read it back 
than you could drink the ink 

from a novel and know
who loved who. 

This poem originally appeared in the journal Rattle, #73, Fall 2021.

He urges all writers to simply write rather than wait for the perfect idea to present itself or the perfect moment to begin.  

“My students at Windward continue to make poetry new to me every day,” he continues. “The reason is that language refuses to stay put. I just point them at shiny things, and they surprise me constantly.”

Digital collage. Photo Brendan Constantine

His Instagram account (@brendanconstantine) offers up writing prompts, each consisting of a literary quote.

These are further activated by his own original photographs and surreal, brilliant digital collages he confects from vintage postcards, gardening magazines, junk mail, packaging and labels, religious images, electron micrographs of cells, and an untamed dog’s breakfast of art sources.

He likens writing to swimming, “…where you’re immersed, and there’s all of this activity and transparency and reflection at the surface. But there’s also darkness underneath you, and mystery, and strong current all around you. So a poem always has two subjects: what it seems to be about and what it’s really about, deeper down. The hardest lesson for anyone who writes, I think, is becoming willing to release control and let the poem happen. I’m always encouraging everybody to just jump in.”

For more information:
National Aphasia Association
Aphasia Hope Foundation
Aphasia Institute
Voices of Hope for Aphasia

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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