Baby, I Don’t Care, by Chelsey Minnis
Wave Books, 2018. 249 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
It’s been nine years since Minnis’s last book, Poemland. For me, and for almost every single person in my milieu, Poemland was pure P-P-R: Perfect Punk Rock. That means brash, limited, exhilarating and inexhaustible. I didn’t want it to be my favorite book of poetry published since the year 2000, but I had to admit it was. It’s a spoof on poetry. A ridiculously brilliant spoof.
People who have read it know what I’m talking about; I can’t go into a long description here. Basically, she has this persona of a selfish wretch, a drunk, cunning and cruel; she throws down four or five lines evoking that persona (some of which contain considerable insight) and then ends with an outrageous delicious simile or image fetched out of the rings of Saturn: “It’s like getting insulted and kissed by your riding instructor…” “And you stepped on all the cakes when you walked down the banquet table!” “There is a conchlike muscle that keeps you from crying…” “I like it like a venus-fly-trap pried open with tweezers…”—The forced-ness of these moves, and the fact they’re effective anyway, is part of the point.
I say I didn’t want to rank that book so highly. That’s because I think of myself as prizing beautiful feelings. I wanted my favorite to be something closer to “Tintern Abbey.” But what could I do. The people who were trying to do “Tintern Abbey” failed. They weren’t in control of their materials, and they did not give pleasure. Minnis on the other hand was in exemplary control of her materials, and she delivered the goods ’til you were half-dead with pleasure. So I had to call it like I saw it.
Consequently, I was waiting for Baby, I Don’t Care with heightened senses. Can she top Poemland. Is she gonna do something completely different. How old is she these days. And so on. The answers to those questions turned out to be no; no; and forty-eight.
I did love the book, heaven knows. Anyone who likes good lines and jiu-jitsu will get off on it. Specimens from Section I:
I guess I better make it hot and shiny.
This can only lead to compliments.
Let’s put some ice on our fingers.
By ice, I mean diamonds.
Now come back from the war and kiss me.
Then go get in your breadline.
What are you? A male beauty?
Darling, I think you’re abnormal.
I’m going to be sick & I am sick!
Now, let’s pull the corkscrew out of our neck & keep going.
Darling, I want you to buy me a car in my favorite color.
My favorite color is wine.
You shouldn’t ever leave me.
That’s a way to get your tuxedo cried on.
As you can see, the poems move rapidly. They dart. Line for line, it’s all staccato surprises:
And you think I’m helpless.
On the contrary, I sympathize with you deeply.
If that’s the way you want it.
I can see you’re going to be a hard case.
Of course, you do have the build for it.
You have a pretty low opinion of me, haven’t you? […]
But here’s the reason it’s not as good as Poemland. The spoof-on-poetry thing has been demoted. It’s like it went from being the Queen on the chessboard to being one of the Knights. I think it was better as Queen. In Baby, I Don’t Care, the Queen is this super-intense fantasy of being one of those fast-talking dames from a 40s movie. Not exactly a femme fatale; those are mainly sultry. This is more like a gum-snapping, childish, nihilistic, mercenary type. A “little chiseler,” as she calls herself. She finds a hundred ways to say: “I’m a pair of diamond earrings away from sleeping with you.”
One gobbles it up like ice cream. Not for a second do you think anything’s happening in “real time.” Rather, the poet is revolving in her mind this ironically pleasing and heavily coded construction of a fearless female voice, one never at a loss for a bewildering and provocative reply—precisely because she is certain (in a way that only exists in movies) of rhetorical and erotic victory. She is not a sensualist, or seldom. The thing she wants is gemstones.
Whoever doesn’t like this book is going to say “It’s just the same thing over and over again.” It’s absolutely true it’s the same thing over and over again. But that’s no objection. It’s like with three-chord rock. If you like it, you want it to be the same thing over and over again. In other words, you either do or do not get off on the fantasy of saying to Humphrey Bogart “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and—blow.” You know you’re gonna ruin his life. And he loves it.
Wait, so why isn’t that just exactly as good as Poemland. Because: in Poemland, like in all satire, there’s a rich vein of anxiety being exploited. “I’m a poet, but what does that amount to? Isn’t it just a posture?”—there’s a substrate of shame there, uneasiness. One really is confronted with a question about inspiration and poetry. Whereas, if Baby, I Don’t Care has such a substrate or poses such a question, I didn’t find ’em. I don’t think the fantasy is interrogated. I think it’s just bliss.
Or maybe it’s simpler than I’m making it out to be. Maybe it’s the same thing you find in comparing Berryman’s first seventy-seven Dream Songs to the rest of them. He stops doing that thing where the other voice jumps in at the end, calling him “Mr Bones” and all that. It’s not like I wish he had done that 380-some times. Yet it was an inspired touch, and when it was taken away, I missed it. In Baby, I Don’t Care the thing I miss is the power of the self-contained epigram.
Make no mistake though. This is probably the most pleasurable and re-readable book of poems that’s gonna come out, this decade. It doesn’t have to be better than Poemland. Anyhow it’s time to wrap this up. Let me end on one last stanza out of Baby.
Darling, why don’t we share adjoining rooms?
Let’s get stewed to the eyeballs.
Now let’s have a fight while I brush my hair.
Can you be trusted?
So why don’t you come over to our table and introduce yourself?
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).