Put On Sunglasses and Write a Poem

Almost every line in Chelsey Minnis’s Baby, I Don’t Care could have been lifted from a hard-boiled detective flick or a tough-talking screwball comedy.

In three full-length collections and one chapbook published between 2001 and 2009, Chelsey Minnis established herself as one of the most noteworthy poets of the new millennium — and one of the most independent. Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg included her in their outstanding 2010 anthology Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (Saturnalia Books), and while Minnis fit just fine into their aesthetic of “burlesque and camp, girly kitsch and the female grotesque,” her work also possessed a hypnotic, seductively estranged, subtly dissonant music all its own, something unlike anything else in recent American poetry.

That eerie unlikeness came down in part to the signature device in Minnis’s work of that period, a sense of drift based on her recurrent use of ellipses, and especially of a sort of exacerbated or indefinitely extendable ellipses, to separate the sibylline phrases of which her poems were composed. Here, for instance, is the beginning of “Double Black Tulip” from her 2007 collection Bad Bad (Fence Books):

Those ellipses mark out space and time in a new way, functioning both as a graphically emphatic but asemic presence on the page, and as the marker of some absence, delay, or silence. This elliptical visibility functions quite differently from the empty page space, visually evident in its own way, that Mallarmé began exploring in Un Coup de Dés and that became increasingly familiar in American poetry with the spread of Charles Olson’s idea of projective verse. As Sasha Steensen perceptively put it in a review of Bad Bad for the Boston Review, “Hesitation, resolution, omission, inclusion, decoration, and punctuation, the ellipses are, on the one hand, the bullet-holes that remain after Minnis’s speaker takes shots at the reader. On the other, they are evidence of the unsteadiness of the speaker’s own hand … These lines embody the vulnerability that so often lurks behind the book’s defiance.”

Now, nine years after her last book, Poemland (Wave Books, 2009), Minnis returns with a new book and a quite different kind of poetry. She seems to have taken a tangent into a project that is, to all appearances, less personal than her earlier work. Using a bulletproof persona that admits of no vulnerability, she has produced an odd sort of period piece. The first clue is in the book’s title, Baby, I Don’t Care. It is a phrase that movie buffs will remember as one of Robert Mitchum’s lines in Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric 1947 film noir Out of the Past (and it’s the title of a biography of the actor). Most important, perhaps, the line is a kind of send-off to the idea of sincerity: the Mitchum character’s answer to the femme fatale’s plea, “Won’t you believe me?” Minnis’s use of it as a title suggests that this poetry demands, not simply a suspension of disbelief, but a willful plunge into indifference at all costs.

Chelsey Minnis (image courtesy Wave Books)

Almost every line in the book — except the ones that refer directly to poetry, or that employ four-letter words that would never have been permitted under the Hayes Code — sounds like it could have been lifted from the hard-boiled repartee from some detective flick of the ’40s or ’50s, or else one of the tougher screwball comedies. There are also echoes of songs like Rodgers and Hart’s “Ev’rything I Have” (“There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do”). However, despite the fact that first in the book’s acknowledgements is Turner Movie Classics, I suspect that most of the poems do not consist of lines appropriated from old movies; in any case, I googled a few lines at random to see if I could track down specific sources and came up blank. This is Minnis’s reinvention of an atmosphere that feels déjà vu but that she’s conjured out of echoes and resonances. It’s a pre-Mad Men world in which a man is likely to be a rat, a heel, or a louse, and a woman might be a gold digger, maybe even a stinker, and likes to be given jewelry and mink; in which things are ritzy and people go to blazes or feel swell, and what everyone’s after is dough.

Minnis presents this familiar yet remote and stylized world in a sequence of 39 poems, each composed of five to 10 stanzas, almost all of five end-stopped lines each. The lines are unrhymed and of variable length — from as short as three syllables to upwards of 20 — but the overall impression is of great regularity, a steady beat of blunt yet coyly ironic statements only rarely using similes, metaphors, or other overt figurative devices. Oh, and no ellipses, normal or extended. Each poem, and for that matter each stanza, seems a sort of variation on all the others — they are just similar enough to feel roughly interchangeable, just distinct enough to keep the book moving forward. It’s not so much a collection of poems as a single continuous sequence whose fractally self-similar parts have somewhat arbitrarily been assigned titles as if they were independent pieces. The book’s subject? Not desire or greed or crime or any of the other recurrent film noir concerns that float through it. “Don’t kill someone with a paperweight,” the poem advises. “Kill them with a paper / that has a heavy poem on it.” It’s all about reading, I think. The book’s “I” represents the poet as such, and “you,” anyone who reads the poem; it’s an endless dance of attraction and alienation between text and reader. And though the poems are not that heavy, they have some killer lines in them.

The more directly the poet seems to treat this idea, the more charmingly ironic she is:

Into this hostile world, I bring a special laziness.
I like to go swimming after cocktails!
Then I put on sunglasses and write a poem.
I guess I better make it hot and shiny,
This can only lead to compliments.

Sometimes the compliments need to be coaxed out, however:

The only thing I do is write down words.
I make it special though, don’t I?

Well, yes, I want to say, you do make it special — at least in the sense that no one else is writing poetry quite like this: funny, willfully superficial in tone, but with teasing hints that something serious is at stake, if only on a formal level. What’s completely gone is that sense of hesitation and vulnerability that Steensen found in Minnis’s earlier works, or any sense of how the sensibility conveyed by the poetry might relate back to the poet. After all:

I’m not a blooming wreck, if that’s what you mean.
A thousand times I’ve almost decided to throw everything overboard.
You mustn’t get any silly ideas in your head about me.

This intractable distance, one might even say deniability, is what makes Minnis’s new work, on the face of it, so breezy and clear, so hard to place at a time when a premium is being put on the idea that poetry should be legible as the reflection of a given identity position. The “I” of Minnis’s poetry, however, wants to be as elusive as possible, to keep herself to herself, and to keep her grip on the reader (the lover) by advising him to keep his distance: “I warned you to have nothing to do with me.” “Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.” “I want to be your nuisance.”

Does Minnis’s attraction/repulsion ploy work? Up to a point. But I’d have appreciated a more condensed sequence. As with any stormy, ambivalent relationship, which includes reading, the ups and downs, push and pull that at first seemed exciting can end up feeling monotonous. Finally you wonder why you didn’t break it off sooner. Then you wonder if you can ever really break it off. As the book’s last lines have it: “There’s only one sensible thing to do.” But what is it? “That remains to be seen.”

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (2018) is published by Wave Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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