The Girl Singer: Tenacious and Tender

Marianne Worthington’s newest collection, The Girl Singer, published by the University of Kentucky Press, is a book of lyrical poetry split into three parts, all three of them dripping with nostalgia, tenacity, and Appalachian Blues.

Part I of The Girl Singer follows the trials and tribulations of a female country singer, while also acting as a kind of memoriam to all the ladies killed in old country songs. In “Barn Dance (Chorus),” the speaker asks not to be called “sunshine,” “songbird,” or “daisy,” nicknames meant to infantilize and belittle, adding afterwards a demand for respect that she, and all other women, deserve: “Listen. If you want // us, say the names our mothers gave us. / Recall how we really were: rawboned, // standing spraddle-legged while we / headlined those mean stages.”

Part II of the collection, however, truly makes up the book’s heart. It focuses on Worthington’s own family and the warmth they brought to her life. As one moves through the poems, however, those layers are stripped away and the painful underbelly of losing those who made home so soft and music so sweet is brought to bear. In this juxtaposition of hope and ache, Worthington’s lyricism shines. In her poem, “Vocal School,” she speaks of her late grandmother, Pearl: “I recite the iridescence of her name / in the dark, willing the pitch of her voice to channel my dreams.”

Part III is the most sensory section in the book. It acts as an appreciation for nature and its gifts, ruminating on topics like the birds and groundhogs of Tennessee. Sweet and trite as it sounds, Worthington’s descriptions bring life to the page, as in the poem “Bounty,” where she writes of a cucumber: “Their seeds will tell you a story // of sowing and reaping, a tale suspended / in jelly, recited in your salads, read // in the Benedictine spread on your bread / and tasted in an emerald grace.” 

In this collection, Worthington marries the hopeful and the grieving, holding them together in equal hands. She is defiant in the face of those who would try to control her voice, and that tenacity seeps from every page. In the title poem, she says, “How hard it was to hold my body against / defeat and come to be known as just a girl // singer by those men who said we’re doing / you a big favor, honey.” Here, she speaks not just for herself, but for all women who struggle — to be taken seriously, to be treated with respect. The Girl Singer is an inspiration singing out the disparities with which women are treated, while also offering a realistic, place to land.

Worthington’s eye for detail misses little and translates these scenes into beautifully formatted poems, not unlike her previous work in Larger Bodies Than Mine, for which she was awarded the Appalachian Book of the Year in 2007. The Girl Singer, however, plunges into the reader’s heart and takes no prisoners. Those not familiar with older country musicians may struggle for context in some poems, as Worthington recalls quite a few — but to those who know them, they add bits of excitement to the collection.  

As a whole, The Girl Singer is full of lush, rich imagery that welcomes you, sometimes with grandma’s dinner bell, sometimes on the back of slick black wings in a cemetery. In both cases, this book is powerful in a way that leaves you breathless.

The Girl Singer
By Marianne Worthington
The University Press of Kentucky 
Published November 2nd, 2021