Make what you want of this story. I have to tell it to you. It may sound like something you’ve heard before, and you have! Another publication with very very fucky ideas of how to interact with its contributors is my subject once again. If you splain me the woes of the academic wee tender little guy trying to do its bit for the literary what-the-fuck-ever, I will hunt you down and do something you won’t like. I haven’t decided what, so don’t hold me to it. You don’t need to feel sorry for me. I am not a hurt or abject thing. If you are a publication like the one I am going to describe, stop doing this shit. Understand that it is disgusting and stop doing it. If you are a writer who, like me, gets embroiled with these kinds of publications, please abstain from complying with their bullshit. 18 months ago or maybe it was 19, a delightful human asked me if I would write something about a writer who had been an influence on me, something like that. I said sure. The delightful human said, Can you get it in quickly, like a week? Maybe the delightful human said ten days and said the fee was $50. I wrote the piece the next day and sent it. The delightful human was delighted, and then nothing happened. Nothing. After six months I inquired. The delightful human was not in control of the publication in any way and so could not tell me when the piece would run and when, if ever, I would be paid. More than a year passed and I received an email that started with Congratulations! Your piece is going to be published in blah blah issue. I thought, why are you congratulating me? You are congratulating yourself by congratulating me. I didn’t apply for anything. I fulfilled a commission. I was also sent several forms to print out and send back if I wanted to be published and paid. I filled out the forms. Nothing again. Months passed, and I received a proof of the piece. All fine and the bio was fine. Fine, fine, fine. More months passed. Yesterday I received another email saying I had to fill out the forms or else, you know, no money, etc. It also said Congratulations! I wrote back and said I had filled out the forms and sent them back and wasn’t going to do it again. I asked why people in the office could not keep track of this stuff. No one has replied. I considered filling out the forms again for a hair of a second. It was more of a thought experiment to see if it could even entertain that possibility. I thought for the same hair second about not writing this post and looking like the asshole I paint myself to be. But that would be, you know, not me. I feel hatred for these people, who are probably wonderful, all of them, really terrific people who care about lots of stuff that matters except thinking they are a professional entity engaging with professional writers. They don’t think we are professional writers. They don’t think about us at all.
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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.”
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic- at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Col lagist , New Let ters, Tri – Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
She is not so nice. Maybe not nice at all. Refusing her gender assignment even if she likes some things that are girly. (Who doesn’t?) She can’t be likable by conventional values, and she doesn’t need to be likable, but as a voice talking to you she needs to keep you listening. I think she needs to seduce you into feeling like a co-conspirator in her refusals. She needs to make you think you are her because you probably are her in some part of yourself, regardless of the sex you think you are. She needs to make sure she hasn’t set you up as the thing she is rejecting, that she wants to outsmart, that she is showing she is cooler and more daring than. If she does that, you will close the book, as well you should.
A woman steps out of the stillness
The Wife: A Novel, Meg Wolitzer, Scribner: 224 pp; $23
AS soon as the women’s movement rose up from an atmosphere of longing and resentment, daughters looked over their shoulders and asked their mothers, “How could you have lived the way you did, pretending, biting the insides of your cheeks, making it easy for men to own everything?” Elders like Grace Paley and Dorothy Dinnerstein were out the door with the daughters, raising hell. Lee Krasner remained ambivalent, marching to level the playing field for women artists but refusing to loosen her vise grip on the role of Great Man’s wife. Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt snickered at feminists who threatened to erase — like footprints in sand — the category of glittering exception in which the two had established their power. Elizabeth Hardwick was so aggrieved by rivalrous female ambition that she published “Seduction and Betrayal,” in which, writing about Hedda Gabler, she urged women to find purpose for their intellects by nurturing the talents of wounded men.
As if responding to Hardwick, Meg Wolitzer’s sixth novel, “The Wife” — a rollicking, perfectly pitched triumph — charts the folly of such a course and deftly surveys the motives of a woman who could plot it. Joan Ames tells her story as an apology, an explanation, and as the first book she’ll sign with her own name. It’s the story of a writer’s life almost erased by lies, though whining and blame have been purged from her voice. She is wry, reflective. Like Kafka’s ape in “A Report to the Academy” — who explains how he learned to impersonate a human being and weighs the gains and losses of his transformation — Joan unfolds the process of becoming a perfect wife.
The tale begins in midair. Joan and her famous novelist husband, Joe Castleman, are flying to Helsinki, where he is to receive a $525,000 prize for his life’s work and she will announce her plan to leave him. Their three children, each charred in a different way by the insatiable furnace of their father’s career, have limped into their own lives. Joe’s dependence on Joan has long ceased to make her feel needed and has turned into an indictment of his character and of hers for being beguiled by it. She found it sexy the way he kept her close, burrowed under her skin, drained her responses, impressions and intellect. His sense of entitlement to use the stuff of her worked like a spell on both of them.
To track how this happened, Joan takes us to their early days when, in 1956, she was a Smith College undergraduate and he was a creative writing teacher with a wife, a new baby and a hunger to be recognized that was so intense it made people think he actually wanted them. He tells Joan she can write, and she unfolds for him. But she’s shy, and she’s been cautioned that for a woman to elbow her way into the literary world she’ll need to line her sleeves with razors, and even then she’ll likely be trivialized as a freak. So when Joe suggests sex, she bends to her teacher. When they go to New York together, she decides his career will launch them both. When it turns out he has no ability, she supplies the remedy — how she does this is best left for the reader to discover.
Wolitzer’s talent for comedy of manners reaches a heady high in Joan, a narrator who, at 64, is so past being shocked by human excesses that she’s gained the detachment to study them, and so energized by coming clean that her acidity burns with a kind of lyricism. Watching her obsessively unfaithful husband interact with a stewardess, Joan sees the “ancient mechanism of arousal start to stir like a knife sharpener inside him.” Noting how his chest expands when he’s admired, she sees his aching pride as “a troubling, distant relative of heart attacks.” In bed, trying to relieve his anxieties, he advances on one of her breasts but she nonetheless feels her “nipple collect itself into an obedient knot.” Serving him up on a platter, she lists the ingredients of the dish: “You know the type I mean: Those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages…. Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, who loved to consume runny cheeses and whiskey and wine, all of which he used as a vessel to carry the pills that kept his blood lipids from congealing like yesterday’s pan drippings, who was as entertaining as anyone I have ever known, who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else, and who derived much of his style from The Dylan Thomas “Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette.’ ” Joan knows how to craft a book, moving back and forth in time, dropping clues on a need-to-know basis, laying in psychological complexity as she circles key crime scenes: the time Joe’s first wife came to see her, the night she first read one of Joe’s clumsy stories, the party at which Joe tried to strangle his best friend, Lev Bresner, a man as much respected as he is secretly lampooned for writing about nothing but the Holocaust. Wolitzer has the time of her life evoking the blowhard culture of ambitious male writers who live to joust with one another, and the sideline culture of the women who watch, wither and sometimes explode. Joan navigates the torpor of those women and the flock of Smith sheep in which she was herded, creatures so aware they are being kept separate from the world that matters and so dependent, they dare not walk across campus alone “for fear of tipping over if not propped up.”
Joan’s explanation for her choices is that she loves passivity, mainlines it. She knows there are women achieving in the world, and their efforts mock her. “I was meek,” she owns up. “I had no courage. I wasn’t a pioneer. I was shy. I wanted things but was ashamed to want them. I was a girl, and I couldn’t shake this feeling even as I had contempt for it.” Joan sees herself as complicit in the grotesqueries of her marriage (all the details of which are best savored in the text), but as is typical of this narrator, she explores less her own inner life than her husband’s, and so the reader is shown less about the addictive allure of passivity than of gluttony. You may find yourself wondering how the woman who could write this book would have wanted Joe Castleman at any stage of her life, or you may find yourself believing she could.
Wolitzer’s unqualified achievement is creating satire that’s purged of sentimentality and that seeks to protect nothing. Not marriage, not family life, not traditional arrangements between the sexes, not any of the stations we arrive at after boarding the desire train. “The Wife” is an obituary for the ways men and women have functioned together in the past. It thanks the female artists who paved the way for a writer like the author herself. For a woman to write, said Virginia Woolf, she had to kill “the angel in the house,” meaning the part of her that grooved on martyrdom and stillness. For a woman to become known to herself now, Wolitzer says, she has to jettison her romance with being number two.