Some poets are cutters, others are curers, showing up to every occasion like a condolence-wisher with a casserole. Chelsey Minnis is firmly in the first category. Her verse arrives well chilled. It is served with misanthropic aplomb.
“Let’s go get some smoke in our eyes,” she writes in her latest collection, “Baby, I Don’t Care,” a set of nearly 150 single-page poems, most of them untitled double quintets, that play with notions taken from Hollywood’s golden era and film noir.
“I love to go to bed sober, / which means I have to start drinking early,” her narrator comments. “I like it when two men take off their dinner jackets and fight,” she says. “Next time you see me, I’ll be crashing Rolls-Royces.”
Minnis is endlessly quotable, so one has to work hard not to quote her endlessly. “Let’s be objectionable and immoral and utterly no good,” her narrator suggests. “Let’s get thrown into third class.” She says: “You see, I’m the type of person who would hurt a fly.” And: “Did anyone ever try to kill you in a rowboat before?”
In “Baby, I Don’t Care,” one of the most unusual and persuasive books of poems I’ve read in some time, Minnis is not merely conducting a droll séance with the help of Turner Classic Movies. (She thanks TCM in her acknowledgments.)
As anyone who is familiar with her four earlier collections is aware, she’s a provocative thinker about gender and poetry and the erotics of dislike. As she wrote in “Poemland,” her 2009 collection, “Sometimes I try to please someone that I hate … / So that I can enjoy a range of satisfactions.”
Her poems marinate in the sort of feelings you don’t like to admit you have. There’s a tang of Nietzsche in her antisocial desires, her amorality. Minnis is a bored, fierce, literate attendee at what the poet Frederick Seidel has referred to as “life’s cotillion.”
The speaker in “Baby, I Don’t Care” is a soignée gold-digger (“Baby, why don’t you give me an oil well or something?”) who toys with the lunk who keeps her in diamonds.
He’s a side of beef into which she flicks verbal darts. “Baby, it’s so sexy to think. / Why don’t you try it?” she says. And: “Try not to talk when you’re sober, darling.” She coos, “You’re so handsome it’s a shame. / It makes me want to murder some pigeons.”
Like a pickpocket, without belaboring any of her points, Minnis unpacks and satirizes the misogyny embedded in this relationship.
Minnis was born in 1970. She grew up in Denver and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At Boulder, she studied under the poet Edward Dorn. In her 2007 book, “Bad Bad,” she wrote: “The poet I worship is Edward Dorn, because I adore his disgust.”
Her first book, “Zirconia,” appeared in 2001. In much of her early work, the poems comprise clusters of words that float in fields of ellipses, to intense if slippery effect. These ellipses function like cosmic versions of Emily Dickinson’s dashes. At times, in ways both comic and deadly earnest, Minnis can seem like Dickinson broadcasting from hell.
With “Baby, I Don’t Care” in bookstores, and “Zirconia” and “Bad Bad” about to be reissued in one volume from Fence Books, Minnis, one senses, may be about to have a moment. The gifted poet Sandra Simonds recently wrote a bracing analysis of Minnis’s work on the Poetry Foundation’s website.
Minnis’s poems are unrhymed yet aphoristic and diligently organized. In her direct access to pain and sometimes wit, her knack for absurdity and disturbance, she can resemble poets as diverse as Anne Sexton and Patricia Lockwood. She combines glamour and ordure in a manner that can resemble the prose of Ottessa Moshfegh.
She understands recrimination and revenge. Reading her might make you recall Graham Greene’s line about Flann O’Brien’s novel “At Swim-Two-Birds,” the way it filled him with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.”
Minnis writes frequently about poetry itself. In “Bad Bad,” there is a section that reads like a dissident manifesto. There are many jokers in Minnis’s pack. Sometimes the only way to talk about this poet is to let her talk, so I am going to print some observations from “Bad Bad” and get out of the way.
People say “nothing new” or “the death of the author” but, I am new and I am not dead.
If anyone thinks they need to write reviews, teach classes, edit magazines, or translate books in order to write good poetry … then maybe they should just take a rest from it.
Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it … / But, in the thighs … I feel it.
You should not fall in love with your mentor, but you should try to punish him with your poems.
I fell in love with my mentor like a novice … / I was a nude girl on a fire truck ringing a bell.
I cannot write poems to honor other poets … / I do not think of them at all.
I am only sentimental about my drinks …
I will tell you what is poetry … / It is a remote electronic claw picking up a stuffed bunny rabbit …
It is like bleeding from your anus in the snow.
Even better, Minnis may not be glad of this review. In the same collection, she writes: “I want to write a poem because I don’t feel very boring! / But I will feel like a stuffed leopard because of the praise.” In her new book, she writes: “Let me give you my feedback. / My feedback is arf arf arf.”
Let’s say you haven’t bought a book of poetry in some time. “Baby, I Don’t Care” and the reissues from Fence Books could make you come back. You could start here.