If a more original transposition of a genre from its traditional medium to that of another, wholly alien to it, has ever been attempted – and so successfully and bracingly – I can’t recall of it. Imagine a femme fatale from a classic Noir movie cast as the speaker that unites a suite of poems which adhere to quintain form. Each poem visits a theme, such as seduction, murder, romance, laziness, fun & games, bargaining, larceny, love, and, ultimately, failure. Now envision not one speaker, but a host of female speakers, archetypes from 30s and 40s Hollywood, alternately flouncing into the ring of limelight in their nightgowns while nursing a highball or flute of champagne, inspiring deep draughts from a cigarette, and tossing an endless string of gimlet one-liners. The voice is refracted in a thousand ways, producing a stream of apparent nonsequiturs. Finally, consider the fact that many of the lines could each stand alone as a monostich, so jarring and incisive that the reader literally recoils in stupefaction if not shock. This, in essence, is what Chelsey Minnis, an American poet raised in Colorado and author of several prior collections, has accomplished in Baby, I Don’t Care.
Although she was educated at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and studied creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Minnis has obviously devoted much time to the review of cinematic source material and dissection of a classic Hollywood phenotype during her preparation for this book. That she is fascinated by a period of film history might be anticipated by the observation that she has a habit of ‘reclaiming unfashionable gestures’ in her work as noted in her Poetry Foundation profile.
Unique is grievously inadequate as a descriptor for Baby, I Don’t Care. An irresistible temptation to psychoanalyze the speaker(s) of the poems in this collection overtakes the reader. She/they, a composite in effect, are at once boozy, disjointed, delirious, seductive, self-absorbed, tangential, acquisitive, mordantly witty, bored, brutal, and broken. A hard-boiled vamp, or amalgam of Noir personae, with a penchant for luxury and a deep vein of masochism. She is a chiseler, a philosopher, and an ‘immoral princess,’ to borrow an epithet from the collection. And she knows she is off-kilter. Keenly observant one-liners are rife, like the telling ‘Something’s wrong with me and I like it.’ She certainly does, and so do we. A throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the speaker knows she is an actor when she says ‘Let’s play the scene how it’s written.’
The pastiche effect achieved by the frequent semantic transitions, with one thought careening into the next, unsettles the reader and this is premeditated. It is as if we are fingering a necklace of variously shaped and colored stones, many of which deserve sustained admiration, but all of which we can touch only fleetingly and incompletely. This staccato rat-tat-tat arbitrariness, with coherent bursts of thought rarely lasting more than one or two lines, echoes the devil-may-care attitude of the jaded speaker. In prior work, Minnis has used ellipses liberally, and the Poetry Foundation quotes Sasha Steensen’s observation that her 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 […] embody[ing] the vulnerability that so often lurks behind the book’s defiance.’ Although ellipses are not prominent in Baby, I Don’t Care, we do feel both bullet ridden and acutely aware of the speaker’s imbalance. Invisible ellipses, in essence, separate elements of the barrage of micro-semantic units in these poems.
Minnis’s syntax is simple and declarative, and the diction is ‘ginger-peachy’ period-perfect, but the thoughts, which may seem trivial or superficial at times, often reflect an incisive intellect with profound insight into the most tenebrous corridors of human psychology. The best way to get a flavor for this collection is to sample several lines, extracted below from various sections:
Baby, it’s so sexy to think.
Why don’t you try it?
Why don’t you make love to your wife?
The outstanding novelty of the year.
You’ve completely gone out of my mind.
The grenades are in the champagne bucket.
Let’s fall in love,
just the three of us.
I guess it’s like the sexual equivalent of a flamethrower.
What are you going to do?
Complain about the heat?
The speaker claims she may be ‘strictly ornamental’ but that ‘this is highly agreeable as long as I am paid in gems.’ The truth of the matter is that she finds little of her life enduringly satisfying or congenial, and that her astuteness and wit belie her claim of a mere ornamental status. Ultimately, a sadness pervades the collection. In a Philip Marlowe-style simile we are asked to ‘Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.’ And there seems to be plenty of that, especially depression. Perhaps the most poignant line she utters is: ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be saved.’ But we know that men will line up for miles to try to save her, anyway, because she is more lucid and powerful than any of them.
David Sahner 23rd August 2020