The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

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DEC 18-JAN 19 Issue

Chelsey Minnis's Baby, I Don’t Care

Chelsey Minnis
Baby, I Don’t Care
(Wave Books, 2018)

With acknowledgements to Turner Classic Movies and, “She also writes screenplays,” slapped onto the end of her typically terse bio, Chelsey Minnis’s latest poetry collection Baby, I Don’t Care announces itself as a sort of poem-movie. Divided into three numerical sections—possibly in reference to the standard three-act Hollywood film structure—within which poem-scenes transpire, it is crystal clear from the start that this is not your grandma’s film noir.

What do you want from me?
I’m just a dirty little shoplifter.
I’m like a woman in a sequined gown in a dark cave.
Can you tell me I’m worse than others?
OK, yes, I’m worse than others, but can you say I’m the worst
     of all?

The last lines are deliciously ambiguous; does the speaker fish for compassion, or does she actually desire to be called “the worst of all?” Such decadence belongs to the femme fatale, an archetype of classic noir films. Her traditional character arc relies on the old bait and switch: a doe-eyed, ostensibly innocent beauty seduces the leading man (usually a hyper masculine private eye with an incredible jawline) only to double-cross him. In Baby, I Don’t Care, Minnis wrests the femme fatale from her subordination to the hegemonic Hollywood plot structure (that usually kills or imprisons her by the end of the film) and plants her center stage and ready for her close-up.

In this poem-noir all the dialogue belongs to the femme fatale, and she relishes the attention. “Now let me introduce you to a hungry tigress, me.”  The “me” here is capacious. Minnis was inspired by movies, and the speaker is abuzz with a plethora of desires and personality tics. In a later scene entitled “Nerves,” the speaker spews a runoff: “Let me give you my feedback. / My feedback is arf arf arf.” This dangerous femme exceeds her standard framework, and her desire can barely be confined to the page. “I don’t want to crush a baby chick in my hand! / But I can’t help it,” she explains.

There are delightful shreds of noir plot throughout the book, as when she writes, “This would have been the perfect murder / if only you hadn’t left a thumbprint on my glass eye,” but the overarching focus is on atmosphere and tension. At a cursory glance, the addressee—referred to as “baby” and “darling”—seems to be a male lover that the speaker constantly battles. “I am a thing. A thing to be loved!” she says, embracing her own objectification, “Now go ahead and scamper away.” Like Born to Die-era Lana Del Rey’s “little harlot scarlet” persona, Minnis’s speaker mobilizes her abject femininity as a weapon against her subjugation. She welcomes skirmishes and chaos as “Fun and Games” and doubles the objectifying male gaze back onto itself.  “I’m nothing but a beautiful woman doing card tricks. / And you’re nothing but a handsome bellhop. / Let’s fight like two swans.” She is uncompromising: “I can write this now or later. / I can hurt you with a poem or hurt you in bed. Either way, you’re getting treated right.”

Minnis’s mixing of meta-commentary with character-driven carnality complicates the relationship between speaker, reader, and addressee. “Darling, you’re undersexed,” she says, “Let’s fall in love, / just the three of us.” It’s a jarring and revelatory moment. Beyond the obvious (and funny) hint at a ménage à trois, it’s the most direct assignation of roles in this costume party: there is the speaker (a.k.a. the “swindler”), the bad Girl Scout, the “type of person who would hurt a fly,” there is her lover (a.k.a. “the gentleman”), the “old man,” “the dirty capitalistic stool pigeon,” and then there is the reader. What’s the reader’s role? It’s impossible make a definitive assessment. One could don the latex mask of the lover and read the whole book as an allegory for writers dealing with readers, but such a final reading seems reductive and betraying of the text’s intentional ambiguities. The reader/voyeur combs for clues, and everyone is implicated in the violence.

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.

Note that she contributes to the hostile world with her sluggishness. Her poesy is a luxury, an excess both afforded by and contributing to the hostile world. Diamonds recur constantly throughout the book, a gem notable for its glamour and violent acquisition process. 

This is a matter of life or death, probably death.
Your bullet is very close to my heart.
You’re way off base, darling.
Let’s put some ice on our fingers.
By ice, I mean diamonds.

Not only is the stray bullet a probable matter of death—it’s unclear whether she thinks “darling” is off base because he fired a gun at her or because he missed the heart?—but the diamonds are also entangled with this death-matter. The femme fatale knows that merely being a living human in 2018 means one is always already-caught-up in histories of violence. “Someone can’t help it if they are an immoral princess,” she reminds us.  That’s not to say she’s an ethical relativist; on the contrary, she dwells in complexity. “Everything should burn like burning icebergs. / All of us are bad, but some of us are worse.” And in the last poem: “Now look at this tableful of killers. / There’s no such thing as being any good. / What is life? An evil cabaret?”

That Minnis can reach such prophetic depths of gloom and doom while simultaneously sustaining the integrity of a laugh-out-loud funny persona is a testament to her prowess. This book is an indispensable addition to Minnis’s oeuvre, though she’d likely not want to hear it. “One word of praise would cause me to act contrary to my own self-interest,” she writes, “It’s just a poem, not a platter of brains.” And earlier: “When you said, ‘Fuck you,’ you should have said, ‘Fuck you, princess.’” This work is brilliant, princess.


Logan Berry


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

All Issues