Arielle C. Greenberg


Chelsey Minnis
Fence Books
$12 / 80 pages / ISBN 0-9663324-8

Don't deny the unicorn lover deep inside you. Doubt it, fear it, laugh at it, but don't deny it. Embrace it.

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 fantasy—to Americana girlhood in place of elaborate exoticism—is 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 this style.

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 detail—the warmth of the leather, the suck and softening of the caramel, the implied tongues and hands and stickiness—with 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.", "I
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 Zirconia—beauty, cruelty, other/daughterhood-as well as some of the recurring images-wings, fur, pearls—not 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:

lasers/deep emotions/awe/lucre/napes/vales/lava/and
anything else.

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 reports:

…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.


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