24 April 2010

Unabated, Stripped Down and Real: Poemland by Chelsey Minnis

April is poetry month. Combined all the seasonal flowery imagery of life in bloom, rain and sunshine, bunnies and softly singing birds, have been numerous events, publications, gatherings, readings, slams, and (ugh) iambic pentameter

How do you cut through all that fluff?

Write a book that has no cover picture, no acknowledgments, no titles and no (grammatical) punctuation. Sparing all the fine ornamentation of the old, the dead, and the rhyming, Chelsey Minnis has written Poemland, a book that makes no argument for anything or against anything. It's poetry, and that's it.

The first line of the book really says it all "This is a cut down chandelier." Minnis warns her readers right out that is is not your usually book of rhyme lamentation of love, life, death, sex, careers and the ever fleeting rewards of an MFA. Every "poem" in this book is untitled and essentially the book itself reads like one fast paced long poem. There are breaks between, I am not sure if you could call them stanza, or poems, let's say sections that are page of all back featuring the UPC in white at the edge. This book is obsessed with the UPC, any savvy reader will look at this and immediately guess that Minnis is up to something with this symbol, commentary on the manufacture and sale of poetry? Too lazy to come up with a new design? Completely dada? Who knows, but it suits the book well, rejecting all attempts at surrealism, or romanticism that poetry book covers often strive for.

Minnis takes pot shots at the writing world, throughout this book. She is reminiscent of great outlaw poets like David Lerner, D.A. Levy, Jack Micheline, and Harold Norse. Not only are her words bare of excessive accoutrement in the form of imagery and sound techniques like rhyme and alliteration, she also calls her own community out on whatever the hell it claims to be doing, "Some people know how to write but they have no taste... / Oh I have seen it many times... / Sometimes there is a prize winning anti-sentimentality...". She challenges the writing community, opposes strict formality, ignores conventional imagery and finds purpose for it all making a few unconventional statements about poetry's favorite victim, love.

I was at first pleased with her berating, bashing and beating of poetry but as the book continued on I was beginning to wonder where she was going. I can handle a poem or two about how much poetry needs to change, because that is an important topic which few take seriously. However, you cannot dedicate an entire book, especially one so minimalist, to the task merely of hating poetry, luckily, right as my patience was wearing thin with Minnis's complaints she did break into a complex voice of her own, asserting some of the greater values of life which poetry has always sought to do. It's worth noting that even she is doing what poetry has always done, she is doing it differently thus maintaining her own values and placating my interest in keeping away from the normal Minnis' lines, "Some times I get the right feeling in the afternoon... / And that's when I write a poem for you... / I like things about you...like your head... / You have such a head... / And you are not tripe..." are an early glimmer of the unconventional but endearing introspection that Poemland provides.

She continues, "I'm going to hug you and throw you down...on the ground..." near the midway point of this book showing a touching dose of humanity. Relationships are complex, too often the poet makes a relationship sound only dominating and hurtful or only potently mechanically sexual, or only lovey and puppy-doggish. Nothing quite sums up the reality of human relationships like a hug and a throw to the ground. From a sexual bent, it's fun and rough, from a domination view, it's commanding. She does so much work in such unembellished words; that is truly a strong suit. Continuing in the vein of relationship, but now adding a touch of revenge Minnis writes, "I can only think of orange-colored emotional rage.../While blood trickles down my chin.../I should hit you with my bandaged hands." The trickling blood and the willingness to hurt even when the means to do so are damaged is a very irrationally human way of dealing with our issues. We'll ignore the poor shape we're in if we can just dole out a little bit more pain than we are feeling.

The force behind Minnis's work is truly in the baldness of the lines. She does not forces her readers into her self made paradigms or attempts to define objective truth. She writes, you read, that's it. No games, no pictures, no titles, just words and the meaning you glean from them. Poemland is left essentially bare, drawing on a few deep wells of the human psyche, Minnis leaves her words open to bend with the reader. She spends roughly the first have of her book undoing all the parties and champagnes and awards of the "affluent" writer and spends the last half handing the reader something completely unabated and real.

Poemland was published in 2009 and is available from Wave Books. An absolutely great book, especially if you're looking for a quick read and nice break from some of the more pretentious poets you've run into this April.


  1. No flowers, no fluff, no silly rhyme. Sounds clean and refreshing, perfect for the season.

    I'm especially interested in the "You are not tripe" poem. Sounds like something I could relate to. Minnis seems to have a grasp not simply on single-sided human feelings, but on more complex layers of emotions.

    Powerful review for what sounds like a powerful book. Nice work.

  2. It's definitely a book that I think could stand some talking about. Would be great to see educators reference her. I think there is a lot to learn in her work about the new directions poetry can and is going in.

    Thanks very much for reading, it is great to see people taking an interest in the smaller authors.