Don't deny the unicorn lover deep inside you. Doubt it, fear it,
laugh at it, but don't deny it. Embrace it.
$12 / 80 pages / ISBN 0-9663324-8
This message seems central to Zirconia, the debut collection
by Chelsey Minnis and first winner of the Alberta Prize, launched
last year by Fence Books. It's not a message limited to this work
or this author, because the particular brand of sensuality/sentimentality
at work here is one which I believe is in the zeitgeist: a "gurlesque"
aesthetic, a feminine, feminist incorporating of the grotesque and
cruel with the spangled and dreamy.
It owes much, of course, to the work of Angela Carter and other feminist
writers who relished a baroque masochism as they simultaneously sought
to deconstruct the rape culture fairy tales all around them. Rikki
Ducornet and others have continued the practice, and the recent Gothic-influenced
poetry by Laura Mullen is another outgrowth.
But I'd suggest that Zirconia is representative of a new generation
of women artists working in this vein, and that a particularly deadpan
sense of humor and an attention to childish fantasyto Americana
girlhood in place of elaborate exoticismis what sets this work
apart. For those of us who were little girls during the burgeoning
feminism of the 1970s, there developed a sensibility which walks the
line between outrage and laughter, sexuality and innocence, raw and
frilly. Chelsey Minnis's Zirconia is a thrilling example of
Open to "Sectional," in which the narrator describes herself
"sink[ing] into a reverie in leather/sectional couches/with caramel
in my mouth." This fusion of sensual detailthe warmth of
the leather, the suck and softening of the caramel, the implied tongues
and hands and stickinesswith a determination to be languid,
encapsulates the gurlesque style. "I exist in a blister of fantasy,"
Minnis writes in "Electronique," "and ripen with a
dire/optimism." An iron glove cast in velvet.
Or start at the beginning of Zirconia and work your way through
its garden of earthly delights: the book bristles with originality.
One of the first things you'll notice as you flip through is Minnis's
use of the extended ellipsis. Instead of line or stanza breaks, dotted
lines separate the words and phrases in most of the poems here, so
that the page is filled with waves of pinpricked text. The effect
is part stutter, part studded, and although it takes a moment to acclimate
to the device, it works remarkably well: Minnis has managed to invent
a form which feels earned and reads seamlessly. The ellipses submerge
the poems like J.W. Waterhouse's Ophelia paintings, glittering currents
of lines giving way to petals of language.
Although most of the poems in the collection use this form, some
do not, and they are among the most riveting works included. The first
poem, "A Speech About the Moon," introduces the indulgent
and melancholy voice we will come to know well:
I think, "The moon is mine and all the craters are mine."
Then I begin to think, "I am covered with drizzling
grief.", "I have all the ice blue sinning birds.",
control the sea.", and "Everything sticks out of the
One of the marvelous things about this poem, and Minnis's writing
in general, is how sustained it is. "A Speech About the Moon"
is a two and a half page poem, all short statements, and yet every
line is a delight and a surprise, partly because of the vulnerability
Minnis channels ("Then I sit up and cup my hands over my nose
and shake my head slowly back and forth.") and partly because
the language is so smart ("I think, 'The thoughts are like terrible
ballet teachers with canes.'")
And so gurlesque. The themes present in Zirconiabeauty,
cruelty, other/daughterhood-as well as some of the recurring images-wings,
fur, pearlsnot to mention the title itself, with its tawdry,
dreamy sparkle, led me back to the days of Stevie Nicks, pegasus suncatchers
and Seventeen magazine's prom issue. Minnis fearlessly mines
this terrain for all its faux glamour and real heartbreak. The second
poem in the book, "Big Doves," starts off like the storyboard
to a Bjork video"doves / are rolling out of my heart /
and / just rolling out of my heart / and molten ice is twisting out
of my heart like a frozen / drink"but eventually and gleefully
escapes into pure wordlust, as if the narrator is luxuriating in a
bath of consonants:
Did you all catch the "deep emotions" there? It is this
self-mocking pseudo-petulance which adds to the gurlesque feel: a
sense that all of this is a bit of a show. There are moments of extreme
morbidity and anger in Zirconia, but even they take place poolside
with a daquiri, as in "Uh," in which the narrator begs to
be first a dominatrix and then scratched by jungle cats: "someone
should knock me down / and press me against blue tile / and shuck
/ a gold sheath dress / off me / and push / a shiny buzzer / to make
me slide down a glistening chute." Why? "Because / I am
sique," she tells us, "of everyone and opposed to everyone"
and the "siqueness" illustrates her ability to laugh at
herself even as the frustration and wrath feel vivid and indulged.
In Zirconia, the bullets are "round" and "plump."
Not every poem in the collection work equally well, and, at their
weakest, the ellipses form and overload of sensual imagery feel forced
and disjointed rather than urgent or specific. Page 29 of the book
is entirely made up of dotted lines, and although I wanted Minnis
to deserve this, it simply felt like it had to be done. The poem in
which it is done ("Supervermilion") was not one of my favorites:
its juxtapositions and fragments"infrared / warpath / bloodlines
/ fireballs / redwoods / heartshaped / burned / nothing"don't
But this is immaterial. The vast majority of the book is pure delight.
One of the funniest and most moving poems in the collection is "Report
on the Babies," a prose poem which takes an absurdly scientific
view on an infant conspiracy of cuteness. With the objectivity of
an outsider and the precision of a (biological) clock, the narrator
on a bus to Pittsburgh a baby could not stop arching its
back 8/21, baby with pink headband constricting 9/13, a baby throwing
down the chew-toy three times in my favorite café, baby
who emphatically did not want the bottle, but agreed to eat a
chip (on diagonal)
"I've seen the babies fall in love with me when their parents
have no idea," our narrator insists. "A series of babies
stronger and stranger than any before has been peeking at me.
They continue to peek at me at a critical rate. Moreover, they
seem to be enthralled in a rapture."
For readers looking to be similarly enthralled, I suggest Zirconia.