By Margot Mifflin
Updated June 28, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like a starker, black urban version of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Push is the painfully graphic story of a battered child named Precious Jones, who bears her father’s babies first at 12 and again at 16. Suffering abuse by both parents and serving as a virtual slave to her apartment-bound, welfare-dependent mother, Precious lives in hopeless isolation in Harlem, until she enters an alternative school where she meets other troubled girls and, cheered on by a devoted teacher, learns to write.

Written in the fractured vernacular of this subliterate teenager, Push — the poet Sapphire’s debut novel — is only partially successful: Precious’ phonetic dialect and stunted vocabulary inevitably flatten segments of her story. Such limitations stand out when Precious, who calls her mother ”muver” and refers to Down syndrome as ”Down Sinder,” breaks out of character to make grown-up observations — for example, that crack addicts ”give the race a bad name.”

Nonetheless, Precious’ hard-luck story sings with poetic beauty and resonates with ugly truth. ”I’m alive inside,” she writes after attending a meeting of incest survivors, whose confessions are a balm to her shame. ”A bird is my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning.”

It’s thrilling to see Precious test the wings of her newfound verbal powers, funny to decode her botched locutions (like ”insect” survivors), and sad to watch her revert to frustrated illiteracy when, after progressing by leaps and bounds, she’s thrown a tragic, unexpected curveball. Ultimately, however, Precious gains control of her life through writing (”the boat [that] carry you to the other side”) and finds her heroes (Langston Hughes and Alice Walker among them) through books. Push is an imperfect novel — the ending is lackluster and the dialect is iffy — but its affecting combination of childlike tenderness and adult rage leaves little doubt that Sapphire’s talents as a poet translate artfully into her fiction. B+