Automatic Souls by Andrew Brenza
From the time of the Ancients up through Dryden in the 17th century to our present-time, the word “character” has taken on a range of meanings from “cut furrows” or “sharpen” to a complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person or group. We now understand “character” as either ethos or as the construction of words that commonly form human or human-like entities that move along a narrative. It’s no coincidence, however, that the symbols we use to represent communication on the page vis-a-vis écriture and/or selected font we also name “characters”: A,B,C’s, etc. It’s these we see the visual poet Andrew Brenza breaking apart and reconstructing to sense nonsense in the nether-world of a recalled erotic within his new book. In AUTOMATIC SOULS, Andrew Brenza’s new collection of near-asemic pages (the cover-color of which somehow reminds the viewer/reader of a blue book/green book used on test day beyond the memory of grammar school), we witness that the author understands this complex history of “character” with an astonishing pathos and wit, with a violence that calls out to us, howling. Perhaps nevermore apropos than right now at this historical intersection, this book delivers us routinely into a word world of tragically comedic characters trumpeting “Taps” in response to war and gunfire and madness and bomb threats and bullying, grabbing and taking. It’s post-apocalyptic out there. Time to begin again. Time to start the song. As his characters co-mingle, and with a seeming self-charging battery life divides into cavorting cohorts, Brenza writes, “hush my steps and come again.”
Printed in an edition of 99 copies, this would-be chapbook is broken into eight sections of anywhere from 4-10 pages each. As Brenza explains in an untitled one-page, 2019 “afterword” (sort of), the text is primarily made of “Latin script in Bauhaus font. The torsos and the legs of the [characters] are generally represented by the letter Y, usually inverted, their heads represented by the letter O.” On these sparse pages, as his characters interact with one another, Brenza also includes throughout the book—verso to recto—lines of what we might more commonly call “poetry.” We find as an audience that this little book has a kind of 3-D quality, a sort of synergy moving forward, backward, side-to-side. It’s all about juxtaposition, the formation of the facade of narrative and the illusion of representation. The test? The right to arrive at a wrong answer. The trick? The eye doesn’t know what to look at first: the fractured lines of poems, the character-characters gallivanting across the page in all manner of mechanisms? And does it, oddly, even matter?
As we proceed through the numbered sections of this book, ironically, first-second-third, verso-recto (or the reverse) all work together to create a rather nihilistic universe in which characters strive to uncover from the words they step, dance and fall upon some sense of form, accepting and embracing the meaning in a game gone “Tilt.” We look at it all side-to-side, up and down, back and forth, again and again. As these characters battle one another, playing and marching across these pages, the reader slowly becomes engaged in the acrobatic narrative of our collective history as a people, rapt with the coitus, cunnilingus or fellatio in a commune of silent voicing. Wild, wild ecstasy!
From a pre-dawn time of rocks and sticks up through the formation of towns and cities, these characters clash with the words on the page, “to show the fact of our unreality borders and the allusion of borders,” informing our senses as viewers/readers in our particular memorialized moment of Trumpian contra-thought. In-country we repeat. And with ganglion insistence we march with these characters to construct understanding upon the motherboard of electric spring, singed with singing. There’s a code here, a cost, an absolute freedom we may plug into during any inning. Flipping pages, we bend toward chaos, we come together to order in before these lights short out and the virus overcomes. This book truly has a feel in the hand, in the mind, on the tongue as it effectively begs the viewer to re-examine assumptions of language-use, story-telling and how these intersect with the work of war. This is game theory gone mad. The book has a remembered aroma before that time of a long ago morning once books on demand had fled, evening, and burnt up.
How do we seduce, reject, entice, destroy, all at once, with the body of words we find ourselves within? As Brenza says on his post-final page, “The characters of this world did not ask for their predicaments. […] This is how it goes in the half light of a fading free will.” Mother told us not to put our fingers in the outlet. Now, we have no choice. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Look both ways and cross. What else are we to do? The syntax of the automaton bound in the best little book you, likely, will have ever looked into. As if in shadow, painted, the characters—(ISBN: 978-91-985540-7-6)—will many times over the grammar of your imagination, soundly, quiet. Take your time. Watch. In this book the breath comes the more by number and by number.
Scott Bentley was born in Burbank, California, in 1964. Paralyzed from the waist down, childhood was spent mostly in hospitals as he underwent twelve operations in about as many years to repair a defected spine and hips. Childhood memories include the sight of countless balsa wood airplanes stuck in trees, the early morning sound of an outboard motor as a tiny aluminum boat carrying grandson and gramps headed out to sea, and the words of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” In southern California on streets named for varieties of avocados Scott grew up amidst the enduring conflict and broken furniture of parents who were married too young. As soon as he was able, he left home for college to study writing and received a BA from UC Santa Cruz in 1986 and an MA from UC San Diego in 1988. Since then he has been living with his spouse in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he teaches writing at CSU Hayward. His work has appeared in Chinquapin, Idiom, The Impercipient, Lyric&, Mirage#4/Period(ical), & The Raddle Moon. His publications include GROUND AIR (O Books, 1994), OUT OF HAND (Parenthesis, 1989) & EDGE (Birdcage, 1986).