Towards the end of Cesca Janece Waterfield‘s evocative new novel in poems, Bartab: An After Hours Ballad, the poet offers us “True Story,” a piece that tellingly captures the essence of the book in a thousand words or less. Here, protagonist Evie stumbles home to her boyfriend after a long night of drinking, proud of herself for having gotten all of the previous night’s drinks for free. What she’s done to get those drinks, we’re never told, but we can draw our own conclusions based on the rest of the book. A self-described artisitc iconoclast who’s “so original” that she can’t make a living, Evie spends her days and nights self-medicating in a variety of different ways–booze, sex, and drugs chief among them. Yet she also yearns for a life of bourgeois simplicity, as demonstrated by her purchase (and subsequent loss) of a set of ivory-colored sheets with periwinkle dots. Her dream is to save some money, to buy a van, to make a home with her boyfriend, yet the real world keeps getting in the way. There are bills to pay and eviction notices to deny. Then there are the hazy memories of nights lost to Evie’s vices of choice, and the dream predictably, yet no less tragically, starts to dissolve. The narrator’s desperation is palpable as she repeats her tragic chorus at the conclusion of “True Story”: “I have no idea where those sheets got to.”
As a “novel in poems,” Bartab can do a lot of things that a traditional narrative can’t do. For one thing, the format allows Waterfield to create a pitch-perfect reproduction of the fragmentary nature of memory–particularly when large quantities of alcohol are involved. As the novel progresses, its poetic form allows Waterfield to take us from point A to point B without connecting all of the dots; that work is left to the reader in much the same way the work of connecting the blurred fragments of her life is left to Bartab‘s tragic protagonist. All of this is to say that the book’s form is perfectly suited to its content. Gritty, desperate, passionate, and heartfelt, Bartab is a must-read for the poet in all of us.
Marc Schuster is the Associate Fiction Editor for Philadelphia Stories. His debut novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, was published earlier this year.