The Summer of Dead Birds By Ali Liebegott New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2019, 104 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
The press release for Ali Lebegott’s new book, The Summer of Dead Birds, describes it as “a chronicle of mourning and survival, a vulnerable and honest document of depression and failed intimacy.” Would you read that? The press release imagines you are a sad lesbian, full of yearning for all the loves you have lost and loves you have yet to lose, plus dogs who will die on your couch. And it imagines you want your sadness to amount to something like wisdom, acceptance, or meaning, along with pet hair and lint. If you are this person, The Summer of Dead Birds is not for you. Read something else.
Liebegott’s book is about nothing but the narrator’s voice as it swings back and forth in time, and this focus is part of the wondrous accomplishment of the 84, plot-resistant, linked lyric poems that comprise it. Its publication (press release notwithstanding) is owed at least in part to writer Michelle Tea, head of the Amethyst Editions imprint at Feminist Press. Five minutes after Tea published her first book in 1998, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, a memoir of growing up druggy and queer, she was gathering writers for anthologies, establishing RADAR, a reading series in San Francisco, and producing Sister Spit, a traveling troupe of writers and performers that has included Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Dorothy Allison, and Justin Vivian Bond. Why float around in your own private tide pool when you can populate a queer sea? Through RADAR and Sister Spit, Tea has collaborated with Liebegott, who is also a visual artist and probably best known as a writer/ producer of Jill Soloway’s TV show Transparent.
Ali, the narrator of The Summer of Dead Birds, is in fact a sad lesbian, who has lost love and is traveling with an old dog. A survivor she is not, though, and nor does she wish to be. The word survivor has lost all meaning from overuse. Plus, it describes nothing true. To Liebegott, survival is not a credential or a moral category. She doesn’t think we survive anything. We continue with the sum of our experience, or we do not continue. The Summer of Dead Birds doesn’t want to lift you up. It wants to excite you about the natural history of sorrow and to point out the similarity between freedom and grief. Driving alone, part exile and part escapee, Ali seeks “a humble beaten god / like a bad petting zoo goat / always shooed for gnawing the wall / a god like a bar buddy / with a flawed and sloppy past / knuckles fucked from punching walls.” A goat like Ali.
I lied about there being no plot. There’s a tiny one. The mother of the woman Ali is married to dies of cancer, and Ali’s shrink tells her, “Few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother.” She’s so angry when she hears this, she determines to stay, except a year later she drives off with her Dalmatian, Rorschach. The book is their road trip. Not much happens except encounters with dead and dying animals that summon memories of other dead and dying things. The book is partly a love letter to the woman Ali has left and partly notes on ambivalence worn like a second skin.
Liebegott’s writing is startling in its observation of the outer world that is also an inner world, and, like a road trip, it unravels what you think you know. We come to love Ali as she lopes along, responding to small moments of need and confusion that expand in her attention to them. The first poem begins (Liebegott omits periods):
the birdbath is always half-empty / where we live, it can be dry in three days / this morning while I filled it / a bird the size of a dust ball tried to fly / never getting higher than an inch off the lawn/ a dove sat on a nearby branch / flapping its wings slowly and sadly / the way we numbly open and close a cabinet door / when there’s nothing inside to eat / finally, the dust ball gave up / fluttered inside a cinder block to hide / I feel guilty leaving the birds thirsty / Still, I didn’t fill the birdbath
Writing about the woman who is dying, Ali evokes the bardo of almost-dead, where significance goes almost unseen and where moments of seeming nothing become forms of everything: “you hated that she only wanted to watch cooking shows / while she was dying and could barely eat … I was embarrassed she would waste any part / of her evaporating life discussing the flat tire / so I pulled up a chair to watch the cooking show, too” Elsewhere Ali recalls: “the laundry was made up solely of your mother ’s pajamas / the drawstrings became tangled around the agitator / I struggled to free them but they wouldn’t budge / this was the first time I cried, it didn’t matter if I freed them / your mother wasn’t going to live long enough to wear / them again”
Liebegott occasionally tosses in abstractions such as “soul” or “prayer.” Religious language, like the language of advertising, relies on signal reactions in the reader rather than creating a concrete moment we can enter. There are florid patches, too, that try to push emotion on you rather than earn it. Liebegott writes of the mother ’s cancer, “her own body abducted one cell at a time.” There is no abduction. The mother has a disease in which cells replicate indiscriminately, and it might have offered her more range as a writer to observe what those cells actually do.
Mostly the book is sly and surprising, melding sadness and comedy. Driving with Rorschach, Ali comes upon a scene of road kill, and in the way that anything dead feels like all dead things and in the way the stab of death stirs the excitement of sex, the moment is touching and absurd:
this land of flattened pigeons in Pompeii poses / wings upraised and trying to flap away from their bodies / two puffed-out pigeons seduce each other by dancing / and pecking the ground dangerously close to their / flattened brother / … if my therapist were here I’d say, / I desperately need the inlove pigeons not to eat the flattened one
Liebegott brilliantly evokes the way, in anticipation of a moment, we look forward to looking back at it. “My most treasured things,” Ali says, “aren’t mine yet.” Along the way we learn that Dalmatians have spots all over, including on their gums, that dogs love grief because they get to walk more, and that Dalmatians are the only dogs that smile. (This may not be true.) The writing burns hottest when reversing expectation, most especially the cliché of the male loner searching for space out West. In Liebegott’s hands this becomes a comic and anxious ode to escape for its own sake: “what if,” Ali writes near the end of the book,
you leave knowing there’s nothing where you’re going / the hand out the window, the red rocks, all that / the hot wind blowing in the window, the back of your T-shirt / stuck to the seat, wet with sweat”
When asked in interviews why women don’t write more about the road, Liebegott says they do, only people don’t want to publish those books or publish women who write “authentic queer characters.” In a 2013 interview in the blog HTMLGIANT, she told Janice Lee she thinks about queer kids in libraries—like the queer kid she was—“looking for a book that reflects your experience and you can’t find one…. As a writer, I always try to put a little lifeline in my book for that reader. That, and category fuck as often as possible.”
Asked by Lee who she would rather sleep with, Dostoevsky or Van Gogh, Liebegott answered: “I think Van Gogh, but that might be ageist, because I think I’ve only ever seen portraits of Dostoyevsky as a balding man. Van Gogh had really bad teeth, right? I think Van Gogh, although they both seem like terrible problematic relationships, so either would do. It’s tough. But probably Van Gogh.”