Book review: A thing to be loved

Chelsey Minnis, Baby, I Don’t Care, Wave, $18, ISBN 9781940696720
Nadia de Vries, Dark Hour, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, £3.50, ISBN 9781985202672
Hannah Regel, When I Was Alive, Montez, £11, ISBN 9783945247259
Sam Riviere on courtly love, cuteness and power-play

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There’ve been rumours of a new Chelsey Minnis collection since eight five-line poems appeared at the Stockholm Review of Literature about a year ago. Baby, I Don’t Care – published nine years after Poemland, for some a talismanic book – extends Minnis’s considerable record of formal and stylistic invention (see the gothic fonts and page-wide ellipses of her 2007 book Bad Bad). Really, it’s one long poem, in thirty-nine parts (with storyboard titles, ‘Romance’, ‘Boredom’, ‘Seduction’, ‘Regret’, etc), made up of numbers of five-line stanzas. Mostly end-stopped, they read like a series of punchlines to tell an attic mirror:

I’ve always wanted to be the daughter of a wealthy Communist.
I’m not surprised!
I’d be surprised to be surprised.
Here’s my plan—

let’s fall asleep on the chaise longues while we wait for some money.
First of all, do you have any money?
Sometimes, I feel a slight warmth about money.
Baby, I might not be any good!
The only thing I do is write down words.
I make it special though, don’t I?

        (‘Laziness’)

Baby I Don't Care MinnisMinnis credits the Turner Classic Movie Channel high in the acknowledgements, and the thematic cornerstone becomes apparent early on (is the title a re-hearing of “Frankly, my dear…”?). The book is pervaded with old-world ‘movie’ charm – the cod-aristocratic languor, the English archaisms (“the blazes”, “damnably”), the drawl-speed of the delivery – it would look good in black and white or ’50s technicolour. Motifs include cocktail hour, lots of kissing, pools, heels, hotels, telegrams; ashtrays, glasses, vases (all very smashable); diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires – each gem makes an appearance. Leopards and tigers prowl through, naked or in simile. It’s a whole world, distant yet known, whose gaudy-eerie strangeness flickers romantically beside the factual glare of our own century.

But it isn’t a nostalgia piece – more like a fantastical investigation into codes of attraction and repulsion, as played out between two people in a cultural arena just dated and fond enough to show its artifice. It’s also an extended flirtation with a faded genre, where no promise of consummation or separation holds, each poem running again ‘from the top’. Minnis’s speaker – the same as ever, bristling with one-liners (“my boredom is legendary”), drink-curdled, salacious, sharp as a silver toothpick – relentlessly addresses a “you”, a “baby” or “darling” (whether coddled or mocked) – male, well-built, in a villainous tuxedo, otherwise indistinct: Mr Big. On one level it’s the lyric at its most essential – a you and an I, standing in the corner, telling lies, like the two daiquiris in Berryman’s Dream Songs.

The obvious foil is Hollywood’s gender representations, and the central reversal is neat, surprisingly potent – the male you is the muse figure; never given a line, he’s target practice for contradictory impulses, a jerk, a snake, a hunk, a lug. (“You’re just some man I beat at chess”, one minute, “I’ll have to be brought to your funeral in a cage”, the next.) You’s silence seems by turns fatigued, vengeful, tender, besotted, wronged. (“You should have said ‘Fuck you, princess.’”)

The poems provide a reflective interior to what is often seen as surface: in cinema the ‘chatty dame’ (with cigarette and highball) usually appears as the malevolent double of the icy, inscrutable Lady of textbook hetero fantasy, whose image can never quite cohere into personhood: the femme fatale is always a possibility. Minnis summons a startling cast of variations on this figure (“Someday, I’ll be taken to jail in my tennis shorts”), to open up its paradoxes. The dry manners, the humour and high spirits, the lubricated brains and dreamy backdrops, all contribute to the intense courtliness of proceedings. If you believe Slavoj Žižek, the courtly love tradition can be understood as aiding the construction of the mortifying femininity so integral to twentieth-century cinema (see his essay ‘Courtly Love, or, Woman as a Thing’, 1994). In chivalrous poetry (or an S&M dungeon), the male might appear to be subservient, but he selects his role, and orchestrates the fantasy via his language (or bank account). Such fictional enterprises, the argument goes, help to prepare femininity as a kind of lavish trap, an impossible standard that flips to its negative version as soon as the image is disturbed.

No doubt there is pleasure to be found in the sudden transfer of power, but whether the political frameworks underpinning these scenarios can be so easily inverted is unclear. “I am a thing. A thing to be loved!” boasts one poem, plaintively. It makes me think about how, as a culture, perhaps we can’t disregard the libidinal stockpiling that has gone into the construction work of gender: maybe only by inhabiting these scenes again can one discover their further applications – extending them, revising them, reversing them, as if a device built more for ornamentation than purpose might find uses beyond its supposed function. Here, femininity is still a trap, but it’s also a hustle. “Let’s get in the same racket. / The racket is dirty talk.”

“Why not be a thing?”, wonders artist Hito Steyerl in her essay collection The Wretched of the Screen (2012) – if “subjectivity is no longer a privileged site for emancipation”? It’s not too fanciful to hear echoes of Minnis’s nonchalance, her nihilism with its odd sweetness, in Nadia de Vries’s Dark Hour and Hannah Regel’s When I Was Alive. Among other things, both collections make intriguing studies of the trials of self-objectification, the dissonant expectations that remain most pertinent to young women, probably optimised by everyone’s increasingly image-rich emotional lives. De Vries:

All I want for in a loved one is humility and obedience.
I want to take ownership of something small,
and make it fight for me.
        (‘Take Me, I’m Mine’)

Dark Hour collects forty-five epigrammatical, elusive poems (“I’m reticent, like cream” – ‘A Table for None’); while often pointed, pithy and direct, the voice speaks from a kind of torpor. It’s solitary, bereft, ingrown, prone to gothic moments (angels and vampires flit past the curtains) – as if a childhood fever was prolonged into adolescence, when desire made itself available through movie tropes. In this convalescent atmosphere, an exterior perspective is imagined, and out of her perceived weakness, the speaker manufactures an image of her “cuteness” (see Sianne Ngai, ‘The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde’, 2012). We see a girl nurturing a sickly girlhood – whether deadpanning a One Direction lyric (“I don’t know what makes me beautiful…” – ‘My Amnesty’), or imagining “butterflies in intensive care units” (‘Dear Vanessa’), the poems take pains to aestheticise their vulnerabilities, and manoeuvre the reader into the position of carer, or harmer – they know if you look after something vulnerable, sometimes the impulse to injure it arises – their submissiveness re-emerges here as a kind of aggression.

When I Was Alive shares this expertise in moving a reader from positions of privileged conspiracy, to casual voyeurism, to angles that tip into recognition of one’s own capacity for sadism. The voice is cryptic, strict, sometimes giddy (“I am bank of bluebells I have my red shirt I’ll be fine” – ‘How to Rent a Flat in London’) – sometimes stricken (“I pin the screams to the world / I forbid that they ever be lost” – ‘The Dinner Party’) – occasionally affectless, apparently beyond desire, while still interested in its procedures:

Brushing her hair, she said:
We are going to get really hot this summer
As if being thin were an entry point, except it is
        (‘Mercury’)

The male gaze can feel like an unwieldy concept, but it’s as if that predatory vantage – here internalised early, theorised early – has undergone a repurposing process, with outcomes that are still unclear. Perhaps as a mechanism capable of anticipating and warding off its real-world occurrences: a protection spell. Perhaps a build of femininity that understands its cultural applications so thoroughly it becomes impervious to outside manipulation – a mastery that works as armour. Negotiations like this could seem destined to reach an impasse in “a game called power” (‘How to Fill a Room’) – resistant, yet still reliant on that external vantage for orientation – if it weren’t for the poems’ readiness to develop their own codes, to exceed the reaches of a masculine imagination that quickly falls back on traditional advantage: “Then slice me open in my insolence for I cannot attest to need without pleasure and I cannot smile at the men. Money.” (‘Go’).

As in de Vries, there is an interiority to the imagery (complemented by Alice Jackson’s monochromatic, larval artwork): a yellow room of quiet hysteria, a red room of bovine passivity. Desire is painfully direct (“A cunt can’t burn / forever” – ‘It Swamps Some’) but also seeks creaturely manifestations: I hear Plath’s line, “Grey birds obsess my heart”, in the prose poem ‘To Whom it May Concern’ – “my body has doubled as a cage for Grey Finches” – and it takes on a similarly discomforted combination of rigid manners and libidinal intensity. Steyerl again: “to participate in the image as thing is to participate in its potential agency.” While becoming sites of specific unease, where contradictory forces are unable to reconcile, these poems also discover ways to travel beyond the confines of a particular identity, as if scouting for alternatives. If all options are found wanting, maybe writing becomes a way of asking, “where is how I want?” (‘The Visit’).

The Poetry Review 1083 with shadowSam Riviere’s latest publication is Darken PDF, out on Spam Press. This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:3, Autumn 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.