Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis
Wave Books, 2018
272 pages / Wave
The question is endlessly familiar to poetry but often less prevalent in the work of poet Chelsey Minnis: How do you write about love?
Minnis, though an artistic original, bears traces of the major preoccupations of her fellow Gen-X artists, from her earlier work, books like Bad Bad and Poemland, to her new collection, Baby, I Don’t Care. She comes from a generation of artists particularly vexed by expression: how to say it, sincerely or ironically? Bad Bad, Minnis’s rebellious third collection, fell squarely into the latter camp, dealing in caustic, critical considerations of poetry’s relevance and the author’s own fitness for it. In the series of “prefaces” that opens the book, Minnis writes, “Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it,” and “The thing is…I can’t really learn how to write poetry….” Bad Bad succeeds on the strength of Minnis’s formal invention (see her crazed use of rows of ellipses and the deliciously sour “Anti Vitae” to cap it off) and golden ear. The heavy irony throughout the collection never grates or burns, quite, but does have a certain brassy, insincere quality hostile to almost any genuine feeling, let alone love. As the speaker herself states, “I can only write poetry that is like a tuba covered in blood.”
Poemland, Minnis’s fourth collection, introduced a style less adventurous in form and more reliant on a slightly tipsy, bantering persona addressing an unnamed you (Poemland’s version of her new collection’s title was “Babe, it goes around your throat… / Now yield to me…). Poemland, though not as acid as Bad Bad, manages to include another person but keep its edge. The collection is still filled with Minnis’s clever barbs, but they’re directed at someone you can tell she likes. “If you open your mouth to start to / complain I will fill it with whipped cream…” runs a particularly strong couplet. What’s remarkable about Minnis’s work, starting in Poemland, is that she manages to avoid the kind of neurotic recursion that can weigh down ironic writing, or writing about ironic writing. Instead of interrogating herself, she brings in somebody else.
The strongest stylistic features of Poemland and the sharp energy of Bad Bad culminate in Minnis’s campy, hilarious, and gorgeous new collection, Baby, I Don’t Care. Minnis’s first book in nine years bears the hallmarks of a work that took time. Baby, I Don’t Care is a wonder of problem-solving, building on previous books and not merely repeating them. Though the humor is as sharp as ever, the persona and golden lines Minnis spent years honing have more of an animating form to support them this time, and it lends the collection a wholeness and emotional arc a cut above many poetry collections. Finally, here’s love.
As the title suggests, Baby, I Don’t Care is built from classic film dialogue and conventions, specifically Turner Classic conventions. The acknowledgement page begins by stating, “This book was inspired by classic movies and couldn’t have been written without the Turner Classic Movie Channel.” Few outright connections are made to classic films in the collection, at least not in a clanging, metatextual way. Instead, the poems sound and feel populated by the crooning voices and boa-wrapped profiles of the kinds of characters in those movies. Noir scenes get torqued just out of normality with Minnis’s off-kilter quips like, “But if you really love me, / you’re dropping diamonds from your crop-duster” or “Darling, this doesn’t mean anything. / It’s just a bit of stylish crawling.” The collection begins with an “Introduction” nodding to Bad Bad’s self-referential prefaces with a wry, “I assure you, this will be a conventional poem,” but you get the feeling she halfway means it this time.
The connection to love stories and problems in the book makes the TCM inspiration more meaningful, a connection that’s particularly fun to pair with the dedication “For Steve” at the beginning, a “total madman” thanked for “his loving support” in the Acknowledgments. One can sense an underlying sincerity to the high-camp romance throughout the book, and that sincerity keeps the form from feeling academic or inbent. This a book that reaches out. The poem titles are structured in the form of wild and narrative ups and downs in the relationship that shape the themes of the poems and the arc of the collection. Poems such as “Handsome” and “Compliments” house the speaker’s early version of swooning, that same golden ear of Minnis’s presenting lines like “I guess you mean something to me. / Enough to make me hurl a highball glass into the fireplace.” Yet darkness swoops in to taint the love story in “Breakdown” or “Murder” in the form of “Don’t go into the office and shoot yourself! / It gets very noisy before you die and then it gets quiet as a pond.” Minnis’s speaker cops to the presence of melodrama throughout (“Now, please don’t underreact”), but the stark surprises of her phrasing and the palpable truth to her feelings lends the book’s relationship conventions significant weight.
Perhaps Minnis’s biggest asset, the one she uses to answer the question of how to write about love, remains her humor. The zings and absurdism throughout solve that tremendous problem facing writers writing about love. Love imbues ordinary events and details with a meaning that’s easy to get lost when converted into art. Quotidian details (that curl of their hair, how they brought you flowers, where you went that one time) are special mostly because you feel special, and that feeling proves difficult for writers to conjure. Especially for writers who have spent their career specializing in acrid (though fantastic) sneers and jabs, it might be tempting to leave love untouched. Why risk a chorus of snickers, mocking colleagues, and readers put off by their favorite poet growing soft? As a writer, making one’s swooning honest but not cloying is no quick feat. It might take nine years. It’s a pretty good problem to face, writing about love, but nonetheless a large one.
Minnis solves this problem with the tools of a long-expert humorist. Bad Bad’s intentionally excessive ellipses contract into a blunt period at the end of most lines in Baby, I Don’t Care, framing the speaker’s confessions as deadpan one-liners. A Turner Classic Movies story arc provides the winking but grand gestures (in which to hide actual grand gestures). A constant rate of surprise keeps the classic movie tone fresh: “That’s KO with me. / Let’s have ringside seats.” And Minnis has a natural comic feel for knowing when to be specific and when to be general, matching snipes like “It costs a meat locker full of rubies” with thematic zoom-outs like “Do I mean things or not? / The softness of importance.”
This book doesn’t directly answer the question of how to write about love—or at least it doesn’t answer it for everyone. Campy humor and a tight structure work marvels for Chelsey Minnis, but they won’t, of course, change how we relate to one another. The frustration of irony versus sincerity may remain Gen X’s MacGuffin. Likewise, Baby, I Don’t Care won’t spare readers love’s ugly parts—in fact, the last poem is titled “Failure.” TCM’s sweeping orchestral conclusions remain absent from the book’s closing lines. “There’s only one sensible thing to do,” the poem’s speaker declares. “That remains to be seen.” Instead Minnis’s book presents the small, blessed solutions of lyricism, identification, and humor that make prolonged issues briefly bearable. The book is excellent enough that while it lasts, there is a short while when you don’t, you know, care.