“The Beautifully Worthless” – Invoking Emily Dickinson

Watercolor painting by Ali Liebegott.

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, and rather than share her poems, we’re sharing some of Ali Liebegott’s work, an author influenced by and enamored with the poet. In an interview with Lambda Literary, Liebegott said she is “astonished by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The words, yes—but just how she seemed so completely plugged in to poetry.” In 2010, Liebegott took a road trip across the country by train to make her way to Emily Dickinson’s house, and along the way, she interviewed women writers for a project called The Heart has many Doors (a line from an Emily Dickinson poem), which appeared in The Believer.

Liebegott’s epic road poem The Beautifully Worthless, is also party inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, among others. The story of a runaway waitress who leaves her lover, grabs her dog and hits the highway. The Beautifully Worthless is a hilarious and heartbreaking story about love, heartache, addiction and madness. We’re thrilled it’s back in print and a part of the City Lights/Sister Spit series! An excerpt from the award-winning story:

The difference between Despair
and Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

—Emily Dickinson #305

I don’t want love stories to ever end
especially love stories that have to do with me.

If you haven’t figured it out by now
lesbians lead dramatic, complicated lives.

Before I went to Camus I cheated on Lamby.
We went to a sliding-scale couples counselor
who only helped us because we made fun of her.
We saved our sixty dollars a session and moved in together.

Upstairs our forty-year-old neighbor sold drugs
and had fifteen-year-old boyfriends

downstairs we moved slowly around each other
not gorgeously, but like the yellow
that slowly overtakes the leaf ’s edge.

I began to sort my life out by making lists:

Things To Say When We’ve Let Each Other Down
1. I don’t know how to change from this monster I’ve become.

Somewhere small where no one dies
there are towns like this, my hometown,
where when finally the suicide happens
it feels like the only eclipse that century
people huddle on their porches with silent excitement
and look toward the sky—

what could it mean to be that bright,
then blacked out, girls who go to sleep girls
and wake up butterflies,
then butterflies turned prostitutes
and prostitutes turned crack-whores?

Out the front window,
the prostitutes scream at each other
later, it’s always different
they stumble by drinking orange soda.

I walked Rorschach under the overpass
on the only street in the world,
the only block in the world
53rd St. between 3rd and 2nd Avenue.

I moved in with Lamby for a while after I lived on the farm. The way I love her is like the way I can’t love a part of me. We waitress then come home exhausted at three in the morning. We have to walk the dogs on the filthy ice and try not to fall. She lives upstairs from an illegal strip club. When we come in the door, the coke- addict bouncer pokes his head out of the strip club and pets the dogs forever because he’s so high. Her apartment is either too hot or too cold. It smells like wet dog hair and warm trash when you step in the front door. The reward on these bitter nights after walking the dogs and surviving interactions with the drug-addict bouncer is to come upstairs and watch the news. Our legs ache from delivering 200 cheeseburgers. The apartment is dark—three in the morning. We sit on the couch with the dogs, and I look over at her face lit up by the television. Her beautiful eyebrows—occasionally illuminated. She stares straight ahead at the black ocean. Fishermen come from all over the sea with their high-powered squid lamps and try to recover the dead.

We’re shipwrecked, do you hear me, they’ve stranded us in this
given us only things to buy and jobs to earn the money to buy

the shoes of the dead float on the surface

and we the people have sunk to the bottom
our eyes straining past that blue-green surface
where our own voices chatter in the air above,
and invisible birds with bleached ribcages
hang in the sky like angel-ornaments

like thumbtacks pushed in a map
marking each new city we sought.


The Beautifully Worthless by Ali Liebegott

The Beautifully Worthless is an outrageous act of kindness.”—Eileen Myles

“Ali Liebegott’s ability to hit the right tone is scientific, almost violent in its precision—a single word or observation, well-placed, can have a reader crying or laughing aloud.”—Bomb

A runaway waitress leaves her lover, grabs her dog and hits the highway. Liebegott maps her travels in a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to the girl she left behind, and some of the most exquisite poetry written about love, heartache and madness.


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