Sunday, March 15, 2009
by Chelsey Minnis
Since beginning this blog, I’ve neglected the contemporous work of younger poets. Writers I have touched upon here, such as Lorine Niedecker or Charles Bernstein, may not belong to a more Quietist canon, yet they are still unquestionably major writers who have established firm reputations both within the field itself and in academia. They are major writers in every sense. The dearth of recent first books considered upon this blog has so far been an oversight I hope to rectify. What was I thinking?! I’ve read some very good things about Chelsey Minnis online, and decided to check out her work. Minnis’ first book, “Zirconia,” was published by Fence Books in 2001, and has since been followed by 2007’s “Bad Bad” and “Poemland,” set for release next month. The winner of the 2001 Alberta Prize and a nominee for last years William Carlos Williams award, Minnis has garnered some very impressive praise in the past decade. Let’s look closer at her first book.
The real charm of “Zirconia” lies in Minnis’ thoughtful maneuvering of the prose poem form. The page is invigorated through her use of an exaggerated ellipsis. The punctuation is protracted to such an extreme that the periods become less a presence and more a weighted acknowledgement of absence. “Zirconia” is a fitting title for the book, one with a very real, physical resonance. The punctuation becomes a concrete, visual agent upon Minnis’ page. There is a totalizing element to the ellipses that may remind one of Duncan and Olson’s utilization of the page’s projective potential, but this work more strongly evokes a visual poetics where the object of the word is considered as an element analogous to those in painting or drawing. Punctuation, you see, is inherently contradictory in its physical trace and phantom insubstantiality. As mentioned above, punctuation is negative weight. Words are the additive components to a sentence, while punctuation is the sign of an omission – the placeholder of a pause or repositioning. Zirconia, then, reflects upon punctuation’s palpable artifice, its simulated persistence.
Minnis navigates her formal gambit best when most rigorously breaking her poems out of a conventional dictum. In the weaker poems, such as “Maroon,” the ellipses almost seem to hide a more traditional, less exciting piece underneath the formal vitality. Yet look at poem like “Supervermillion” where Minnis fully exploits the tension of her form. This is an impressive piece. The severity of her breaks enacts a vivid wordness upon the poem. Because of her unique formal elements, Minnis’ poems are difficult to excerpt from successfully, yet in “Supervermillion” she bravely leapfrogs from word to word in a singular, disorienting array (bear in mind my reconfiguring of the poem to fit this blog): “supervermillion/ infrared/ warpath/ bloodlines/ fireballs/ redwoods/ heartshaped/ burned/ nothing…” Minnis deflates the prose poem, transforming it into a dense container of the negative.
Look at how the initial words in the poem are all contractions that evoke a redness, yet also discourage the reader from a lush immersion due to their prompt strangeness. The first page of the poem winds down with the word “burned,” one that suggests the ghost of redness. The act of burning in the present is a deep red, yet to have been burned suggests brownness – the echo of a departed color. The last word on the page is, aptly enough, “nothing.” The subsequent page is empty – blank aside from the flatness of the ellipses. The ellipsis, if one can even call it that, creates a topography of abatement – the diminished additive. The poem revs up to a more cogent pitch as flame and water imagery collide “…around a cupid fountain spurting fire…,” before yet again slowing to the incremental accretion of individual words: “…bursts/ flecks/ mesh/ rampage/ persimmon…” The poem is here a machine, with its cycles and its patterns of methodology.
“Supervermillion” also concludes in a manner unique amongst the poems in “Zirconia.” Within brackets, we are instructed to “[go right into BABY VAMP]”, the next poem, which incidentally shares the same page as the concluding section of “Supervermillion.” This instruction interrupts the smooth conclusion of the previous poem, and manifests a pleasing disruption. I liked this abrupt transition; it reminded me of nothing if not how one track bleeds into another on a cd. The cohesion of “Zirconia,” the interplay between its independent parts, does remind me a great deal of the unity obtained between tracks on a well sequenced cd. A comparison to an audio medium is also interested, as the ellipses of “Zirconia” persistently remind one that punctuation concrete striving towards, and falling short, of a textual approximation of the verbal. I would love to know how Minnis recites these poems at readings.
Minnis’ deft balance of reoccurrence further aids these poems. The punctuation, obviously, is a repetition repeated into a concrete weight, but there are other fruitful reoccurrences in the text – oh, look for at least two references to old men’s beards in the text! Words such as “neural” and “wrath” materialize in different configurations. We have “…a neural flower pavilion…,” as well as “…an incredibly accurate neural concept of the occurrence…” The latter statement also highlights interrogation of the moment, “…the enormous moments…” and “…the durable moments…” This exploration of the lived instant is introduced in the collection’s first poem, “A Speech About the Moon.” The word “think” appears roughly twenty times over three pages. Thought looks back on a moment, while thought also creates a moment. This mystery play of memory and reoccurrence facilitates the volumes strongest poetry, work that excites and challenges me.
The weak spots of “Zirconia” are all the more disappointing, then, in light of such bold strength. Not to say this is a bad book, it is one I would enthusiastically recommend, simply that it occasionally veers into tactics and territory I personally prefer it did not. The vigor of Minnis’ ellipses are so immense, that when she ventures back into a more conventional prose poetry, I can’t read it as anything other than a loss. The first and last poems in the book, the above-mentioned “A Speech About the Moon” and the concluding piece, “The Aquamarine,” are both impressive pieces that provide a thematic unity to the book’s subtext, and “Report on the Babies” is both intelligent and wryly funny. But despite their strengths, and especially despite how important textually the first and last poems are to the book’s greater unity, I still found them disconcerting – they were a distracting break of form. Additionally, “The Skull Ring” and “The Torturers” unfortunately read as two of the weaker poems in the entire volume, which for the most part proceeded with few grave hiccups.
I look forward, then, to reading further work by Chelsey Minnis. My own personal taste leans more towards her negotiation of punctuation and page, as well as her more philosophical ventures into memory and image. The works such as “Maroon” with its evocation of “…my blood sticky/ wet/ baby/ [who] is/ an auburn/ and/ bloody/ beauty/ who/ shined/ inside/ a slippery milky sac…” simply turned me off, though it might be on account of my distaste for a contemporary predilection for such lush, melodramatic imagery. “Primrose” also turned me off in a similar fashion, as I could not accept the trangressive nature of the narrative in the way I delight in comparable images in the work of Kathy Acker or Jean Genet. Still, despite the occasional misgiving, “Zirconia” is a wonderful first book, a volume of poetry full of courage and wit.