1996

I am reading old notebooks and came across this from 1996. It makes me laugh in the sense of so what else is new?, and for fuck’s sake, really?

1996. I ran into P. I have recently dreamed about him. He’s back in my fantasy life now that I am no longer seeing P. I congratulated him on his new book. He launched into a denunciation of the review of it in “The Nation.” He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. I think he’s like this with most people, doesn’t even try to listen out of politeness. Despite this, he beams a sort of approval at me. It’s about sex. I once thought that included my mind or something besides being a listener. He said he was amazed at the bold way I revealed my sexual self on the page. I wasn’t sure I did that and felt a little embarrassed. I am envious of his talent and the seriousness with which he takes himself. I don’t have that kind of confidence. I could not stand to be around him too much, unless we were having sex, and I don’t want to have sex with him.

1995

I’m back to reading old notebooks and came across this entry from a time I am alone, more or less, and in love with a man who is not available and whom I run into from time to time. I like this passage because it’s cold and nervous, and it’s like lifting the corner of a napkin that has fallen over a time of life larger than my own life. What can women get away with if left to their own devices?

February 19, 1995

J drove down. I suppose I knew I would have sex with him. For a few minutes at the start, I felt bad about what I was doing. We had dinner at Spring Street Natural. He wanted to come back to my place, and I said okay. We made love for 6 hours. I liked it very much except I had no feeling for him. He was slow, sensual, generous, open. He left at 4 and I took a bath. I ate the cake that T had brought me. I took 1 and ½ pills and slept 2 hours. When I got out of bed, I was sad and went to the gym. A few hours later the phone rang. It was J. He wanted to know if I wanted to see him and the friend he was staying with. I said no. I wished him well and told him to keep in touch, but really I’d prefer he didn’t because I’d only sleep with him again. Is it better than nothing? I don’t know.

Animal Shelter

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.”

My Brilliant Friend, episodes 7 and 8

The show is interested in two characters only: the relationship between the girls. All the other characters are instrumental to this unfolding engagement. There is no other interiority but theirs and only a dawning interiority for Lila. The first season is done. What am I supposed to do? Episode 7 was a bit of a slog. Too much boy and not enough Lenu and Lila. Each girl picks a less violent male she doesn’t desire to fend off a more violent male who arouses rage. In the case of Lila and Marcello, the beautiful, rich-boy bully, it’s more than rage. It’s also sexual attraction. Who has not hated a person you also wanted to fuck? She tells him she will kill him if he replaces her with another attraction. At the same time, she agrees to marry her smitten boy if he promises to keep Marcello away from her. She doesn’t want to be in Marcello’s power. It would be worse than being in the power of her brother and father, who are dominating but at least afraid of her. Lenu lets a boy feel her up because she can use him to scare off the twitching mustache letch who molested her the summer before and whose son she wants. It’s confusing. It’s all confusing. The less violent males turn out to have their own agendas, and they are not really less violent, only more smitten and temporarily bendable.

It’s enjoyable and painful to see Lenu in love with the letch’s son, a surly, baby intellectual with unshaved fuzz. Her eyes grow soft and hazy. Impulsively she presses his hand to the table, wanting him to stay at the wedding party, even after he has declined to publish a piece she has written for his little journal. She has been burning to see her name in print. The boy has been told Lenu is a better writer than him, and the piece has been polished by Lila so it’s a combination of their talents. Lenu is deeply disappointed. You can see the light go out of her eyes and the air leave her chest, but when you want someone, what’s one more piece of power you let them have over you? You tell yourself they are not a jealous bastard, and you grab their hand. He walks out, anyway.

In episode 8, the season finale, Lila and Lenu are back together, and we see what we have seen from their first moments together: each for the other is the only person in the world who speaks the same langauge. Not to share a language is isolation of a deranging sort. To share a language is to share an inner and outer world of understandings. To the girls, the phrase, “normal life” translates into “male control that will block all exits or produce so much trauma the exits won’t be visible. Lila decides to go entirely underground, where she has mostly lived with the exception of Lenu, and marry a man she does not love in order to leave the home of her father and brother. It’s a conscious choice and in making it Lila sees what she is turning into. Lenu comes to see it, too. It’s spoken of by the girls in their funny, truncated bursts of dialogue and sudden avowals of belief in each other. The scene of Lenu bathing Lila before her fake happy wedding is breathtaking. “Stand up,” Lenu says to Lila, and she rises, naked, and we see the glory of youth’s body she is going to trade away. The mind that has devised the trade puts at risk the the thing in her that ticks away, the cascade of language, depositing more and more along a restless shore. The teacher who discovered the genius in the little girl thinks Lila’s great gifts have been scattered and swept away. She won’t allow her into her apartment. Benj DeMott

Some words on humor, jokes, and comedy.

On November 27, film critic David Edelstein was fired from his job at “Fresh Air” for a remark he made on Facebook. I will have much more to say about this going forward. He made a joke about butter, a reference to “Last Tango in Paris,” after Bernardo Bertolucci died. I am thinking about something Edelstein said in his apology for the remark: “I . . . would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality.” This is a fair statement, but it also suggests you can’t make a joke about rape, period, and it suggests jokes and comedy “make light of” things. The joke didn’t work because the target seemed to be Maria Schneider, who had famously made public the engineered humiliation she had experienced on the set of “Last Tango” when she was 19. Jokes and comedy do not necessarily “make light of” things. Jokes and comedy can tap the most serious feelings we have about ourselves and the world. Brando, too, said in interviews he had felt humiliated by Bertolucci. It was cold during the shooting of his one, full frontal nude scene, and his parts shrunk. The scene was scrapped. Schneider said she thought Bertolucci was in love with Brando and that originally her part was supposed to be played by a boy. I think you can tell a joke about anything if you find the frame that does not beat up the people who have already been beaten up. Edelstein could have made an excellent joke involving butter about Brando’s cold-weather weenie and Bertolucci’s crush on Brando. If he had thought in these terms. It’s the not thinking in these terms that is not funny because it is so commonplace and generally unremarked upon.

My Brilliant Friend, episode 6

As soon as we see the mustache twitching, we know Lenu is in the line of fire. Lila’s father’s sale of her to a beautiful man is a homoerotic exchange. The father is jonesing for this man from the moment he steps into his world. Maybe every exchange of this kind is two men fucking through the proxy of the girl. Maybe all male supremacy is men fucking each other in various ways. The question of male feelings about themselves as men is a blob of dullness that keeps expanding, no matter what Lila does to fend it off. It is gray goo. It is one of those giant balls that comes rolling at you in an Indiana Jones movie. You run, and you run, and there it is. If you are a male human, and you are not able to enter the story of these two girls as if the story is about you, then you are the ball in the Indiana Jones movies. This show is saying everything I am saying in every shot. It is so beautiful and so sad. Go, Lenu, ride those waves, read those books, stroke through that water, go get your friend, cry your eyes out so you know you’re alive.

My Brilliant Friend, episode 5

I watch “My Brilliant Friend” with my hands over my mouth, ready to cover my eyes at a stroke of violence. Lila’s father. Has a word ever been more poisonous to say and feel its smoky meaning disappear in the air than the word, “man”? What is a man? No one cares. I don’t care. Lenu and Lila don’t care, and it is like not caring about Trump and his government. They could kill you, and they’re still so fucking uninteresting. I hate this episode, but I couldn’t stop watching it. I can’t stop watching a minute of this series. I worry it’s about to end, but I don’t want to look at the bar across the bottom to see how much time is left. There are too many men in this episode and things men say and do that circle women. Lila is a fly in a spider’s web. The more she buzzes, the more the silk circles her until she can’t move. She can’t move because she’s so alive, and the men want her aliveness inside them and then they want it to stop. She’s so alive and yet she can’t leave the town. She’s a kid. She’s maybe 15. Who asks a girl of 15 to get married? She is afraid of the world, and somehow Lenu is not. The thing that brought tears to my eyes is when Lenu tells Lila she is leaving for the summer. She has a chance to escape and swim in the sea, a whole summer away, and Lenu can’t think of anything but the guilt she feels in leaving Lila to fend for herself against her father, her brother, and the Marcello who has come for her. She can’t kill them all, and she knows that, and the knowledge is like dying when you are still alive. It’s pretty much what it means to be female in this town at this time and during all times and still now in many places, and there is a double consciousness always working, the thinking: This can’t be happening to me, and: This is happening to me, and I can’t find a way out because there is no way out. Lenu has been offered one, and what does Lila say? She says, “Brava.” She says, “You go, girl, go into the world I can’t venture into. Feel joy. Feel joy for the two of us.” But the thing is, it’s impossible to feel joy if you are the female who has gotten away and you know it’s a fluke, and it doesn’t change the condition the others live in, that you live in. There is no getting away because the other women are inside you, and yet you have to get away because you can only make one run for it.