“It is hard, at first, not to be disappointed with Chelsey Minnis’s aptly named first book, Zirconia, whose ellipses-studded interiors appear, on first inspection, gimmicky and cut-rate—undercooked and oversold.
However, Minnis, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a keystone in Fence Book’s young American poets line, makes a starry debut in this slight but dazzling ravishment of phrase fragments and pearled ellipses.
Minnis’ effort is, in a word, brilliant, as the titular wink suggests. It is not, however, glaringly imitative, though the demonology it conjures is not unlike Sexton and Plath’s.
The book opens with the whimsical ‘A Speech About the Moon,’ a wild rumpus in couplets where the speaker importunes the moon and its schizophrenic symbology: ‘silver hitching ball,’ ‘placid sea monster,’ ‘silver leg iron’ (2). The elliptical moments, so much a fixture of what follows, enter the volume organically here, arising in moments of indecision, revision and ecstatic redirection. ‘A Speech’s’ unsettled and unsettling rhetoric, its relentless interrogations, function as both invocation and ars poetica: ‘I have to invent warm tawny roses that have never been seen before.// Then I fix the sheets which are twisted around my ankles and think, I have to be tormented.’ Overall, though, Minnis’ dark night of the soul is more slumber party, concluding with the epistemologically aphoristic ‘thoughts are like terrible ballet teachers with canes’ (‘A Speech’ 3).
In tone, Minnis is emphatically more Charlie’s Angels than Belle of Amherst, the poet-speaker wanting roughed-up by the stuff of life, to take as much as to dish, a wish made explicit in the poem ‘Uh’ which begins ‘..uh……….I want to wear hot pants . . . . and rest my boot on the back of a man’s neck . . . and . . . . rise out of arctic waters with curled icicles in my hair and a speargun’ (13). In Minnis’ blow-by-blow, such powerlust rebounds as self-punishment: ‘I am too petulant . . . and . . . I . . .want them to . . . centre death blows between . . . my shoulder blades . . . and . . . then . . . gently lick electrodes . . . and stick them to my temples’ (15).
There is something at once delightfully retro (read Nancy Sinatra) and tragically hip about Zirconia—a vision and revision that takes in the best of Anne Carson, C.D. Wright, and Alice Notley—and makes it playful, even campy. Zirconia‘s prose interludes (‘Report on the Babies,’ ‘The Skull Rings,’ ‘The Torturers,’ and ‘The Aquamarine’) represent Minnis at her most surreally deadpan, while giving the reader a badly-needed break from the gazillions of dime-store ellipses. In poetic prose matching Ponge tone for odd tone, Minnis rests the reader at ‘Report on the Babies,’ a close encounters with infants who make babbling overture to a childless speaker whose dark tone resembles Poe’s, given feminine intuition, an hour of down time, and a double espresso.
Though, in poems hung on pop fashion fixtures—furs, gemstones, dress-up Barbies—and righteous anger at a male establishment (‘Uh’s’ ‘and just want . . . to pluck the grey beards of old men . . . and . . . give them . . . hairline fractures’)—one detects a hint of the cliched post feminist, Minnis knows how and when to pull her punches, making the blows land as soft and satisfying as a good pillow fight. In ‘Big Doves’ the speaker arrives with ‘comfortable doves . . . to accomplish . . .my soft ideas . . . and . . . . the doves are shy . . . . because they flap around . . . in the areas . . . of the heart . . . that I want . . . to be . . . flexed . . . thrashed . . . spiraled and . . . neurally lathed’ (6).
Zirconia‘s glimmering phraseology, its ‘loose stone’ parlance, must be read to be fully appreciated, sprinkled, as it is, expertly across the page. While other experiments with fragmentation, notably Alice Notley’s recent work, overwhelm both the eye and cortex, Minnis is a maestro when it comes to word burnishing. The poems achieve their magnificence and translucence as much by space as by space interrupt. The word amalgams, both Latinate and vernacular, give the collection a characteristic alchemy evident in the decadent ‘Sectional,’ whose speaker sinks ‘into a reverie in leather . . . sectional couches . . . with caramel in my mouth’ (23), adding, ‘I am reliving . . . a moment and revolving . . . caramel as I am surrounded on all sides by . . . soft panels of genuine . . . leather . . . . launching my molars . . . into the cluster . . . in order to . . . locate . . . the nucleus . . .’
What saves Minnis’ Alberta prize-winning first collection from triviality is both sense and sensibility, as it consistently transforms the startlingly mundane into the phantasmagoric ‘Cherry’s’: “I see you are kneeling. . . and raunchily . . . or ironically . . . scrubbing . . . the floors with your . . . naughty manual labor . . . but . . . you want to whisper your fears into the ear swirls of the wood . . .’ (27). What Minnis does better than any of her peers is not so much render moments as deepen and elongate them, most emblematically in the poem ‘Flashbulb,’ where the poet’s sprawling syntax descends like photons, like stardust in a burst aftermath. In ‘Flashbulb,’ ‘Uncut,’ and elsewhere, Minnis realizes the language-sustain lesser writer’s realize only as etude.
Minnis’ virtuosity and charm occasionally fail her in Zirconia, in poems like ‘Supervermillion’ and ‘Champagne,’ which come off sounding like Dr. Demento novelty tracks or B-52’s b-sides—but, overall, this is a remarkably sure-footed and enthused whole.
In the last third of the book, Minnis deftly weaves in what is, presumably, autobiography, as in ‘Primrose,’which relives the speaker’s mother’s rape, recalling ‘blood in the courtyard . . . and blood on the birdbath . . .and blood drizzled . . . on brown flagstones . . . as a red fox bared its teeth . . . white harts . . . froze . . . and snow-hares fled . . . and left . . . heartshaped footprints in the snow . . . that melted . . . in the spring when I was born . . . and it is torture . . . for my mother . . . that I am now luscious . . . and she is dead’ (41-42).
In the end, praise for Zirconia must end up in superlatives, though not the ‘diamond-quality,’ knock-off variety the title ironically anticipates. Minnis is careful not to undersell her gift in this first collection, whose dazzling moments belong both to a wildchild improviser and a sage conductor.”
[Editor’s Note: Since this book is typographically complex (and virtually unquotable in its way), we are using three ellipses to stand in for Minnis’s long, elliptical strands; four ellipses are used when quoting non-contiguous lines to indicate skipped or omitted material. Read the book itself—obviously—for the full effect.]