This review is 560 words words
or about 2 printed pages long
Impressionistic, conversational, gritty, occasionally transcendent, The Beautifully Worthless is an evanescent novel in verse written, according to its dedication page, “for us, the hopeless.” The existential deprecation here, beginning with the title, is at times cloying, and as a novel TBW holds together mostly thanks to the author’s will — however, hold together it does, and rewardingly for the reader — a tribute to Liebegott, New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellowship winner and former Sister Spit’s Ramblin Road Show member.
A loose, expository narrative blank verse poem interpolated with “letters” and short sections of prose that provide narrative anchoring, the book divides into titled sections introduced with photos and quotes (Larry Levis, Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich). The story unscrolled is: an emotionally aching young lesbian leaves her lover in New York (Brooklyn) and drives west to find a place “where sadness could be ripped in half, and sickness tied idly in knots all day” (16). Then after finding that such a place doesn’t exist, or at least not finding it on that trip, the speaker returns at least metaphorically to Brooklyn, but not necessarily to the lover or the self left behind originally.
What takes the language here to the level of poetry is vision. Only occasionally do sentences sparkle or startle, but the occasions are strong enough to keep the whole thing aloft; for example, as the speaker began her pilgrimage and envisioned “push[ing] light-headed to a town,” she “saw” those who’d “arrived already — / an enormous snake of women, lined up and one by one,/ handing rapes back to their rapists like broken toys” (31). Narration toggles back and forth between present and past (memory): the speaker in a mental hospital, as an alcoholic, as a waitress, as someone watching her grandmother die, as someone continually seeming to undermine her own self-esteem and her own happiness. Mostly what she actually does is think and drive, in a red pickup truck with Rorschach, her female Doberman. The dog is an avatar and reminder of the ancient apothegm; live first, then philosophize.
The pair’s road takes them west to Idaho and Nevada, with the trip filtered through the narrator’s thoughts. Her musings revolve around the axis of her sexuality and the small universe of her life, with its dead end jobs (waitress), vaguely depressing family (with some history of abuse), and struggles with compulsive behavior (drinking, gambling), with the latter here including the search for love.
These thoughts are delivered in poetry, where the tone hovers among wistful, sad, nostalgic, sardonic, occasionally angry (at homophobia), and occasionally humorous. One challenge of the book is that sometimes the verse narrative veers disjunctively far, and elliptically, from the washed-out Western reality of cheap motels and restaurants, rest stops, and the cab of a truck.
“Real” events are sketched lightly and flatly, and with occasional veiled irony, and the internal events appear dreamily and subjectively, with palpable earnestness but in heightened, occasionally coded diction made of metaphor and shading: the narrator at times seems to hold back. These tactics combine to thin the emotional cord woven between narrator and world (reader).
The Beautfully Worthless is like a series of evocative postcards from a traveler you want to, need to, hear more from. Nevertheless, this vicarious trip, as much around the inside of a head as across the country, is one worth taking.
Ed Taylor’s review of Sam D’Allesandro’s The Wild Creatures is forthcoming in Rain Taxi. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Southwest Review, New Writing (UK), Nth Position (UK), 5_Trope, Another Chicago Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Fiction International, Ontario Review, RealPoetik, River Styx, Black Ice, The Quarterly, Slipstream, Washington Review, BlazeVox, Slope, and forthcoming in the anthology PP/FF. He has received writing fellowships from the Virginia Commission on the Arts and Constance B. Saltonstall Foundation. His e-chapbook “The Rubaiyat of Hazmat” was published in 2004 by BlazeVox Books.
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