Photo provided by Feminist Press.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”
Back around the time The IHOP Papers came out, I was poking around the zine section of Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side when I found an unassuming photocopied zine with Liebegott’s name on it. In my mind the writer was already famous, and I was stunned. Ali Liebegott still makes zines? Not only that, but she’d signed and numbered it; my copy, which I still have, is number 40 of 50. (To sign it she’d crossed out the typewritten “© 2007 Ali Liebegott” and scribbled her signature and an xoxo, which was a very ziney thing to do.) That little booklet held a couple of short pieces, excerpted from a longer work, about sex, suicide, and her dog. It was called The Summer of Dead Birds.
So you can imagine the excitement I felt earlier this year when I read that The Feminist Press was putting out Liebegott’s new book by the same name. This Summer of Dead Birds is a collection of linked poems that, together, become a kind of memoir. It’s still about love and death and her beloved Dalmatian, Rorschach; it’s also about the end of her marriage. The early pieces from the zine reappear, slightly altered and even more intense in their new context.
This book, like a lot of Liebegott’s writing, circles death like a buzzard. The first section—titled Winter—follows the swift death of Liebegott’s wife’s mother: diagnosed with cancer after a busy day of gardening and dead two months later. It is baldly honest and almost unbearably sad. (“Only the dying person knows the right thing to say.”) The sickroom details will be familiar to anyone who has watched someone they love die, but Liebegott lets us see them through her eyes, which is a comfort and a gift.
Rorschach is the subject of many bona fide love poems, though these are doomy, too. The old gal is about to turn 13, and the sadness of her dog’s decline preoccupies the narrator almost to the point of obsession. She sees death everywhere she looks, from a flattened pigeon on the street to an alarming number of dead blackbirds in the park. (Okay, it’s mostly birds, hence the title of the book.) But through all this pain and dislocation, Liebegott maintains a marvelous, dark sense of the absurd. “[Y]ou think a dog is old until it gets even older,” she quips, and at one point she wonders if it would be “fucked up / to get Rorschach’s ears taxidermied after she dies?… I want to have something to hold / during moments of great despair when she’s gone.” (p. 75)
There isn’t a single period ending a single thought in this book, which gives the poems a drifting feeling, a light touch. Each one lands with an extra-soft thud in your heart. This is especially true when the ending could be hopeful, but is curiously sad instead. Take number “V” (the poems are numbered, not titled) from the section The Official Center of the World (p. 81):
everything wasn’t always heavy
once I called you from a pay phone
and asked you what you were doing
in your sweetest voice you told me
you were feeding honey to a dying bee
it could hardly walk, tiptoeing slowly
along the edge of the saucer
after an hour, it had the strength to fly away
The Official Center of the World, by the way, is Felicity, California (population: 3). I looked it up, and the story is pretty strange—something about a French artist who established a town in the middle of the desert with his wife, built a pyramid and a white chapel modeled after one in Brittany, and declared it the center of the world as a sort of holy joke. Liebegott drives there with Rorschach on a road trip for the dog’s birthday and finds that the Center of the World is open by appointment only, but the desert offers compensating gifts. “The best thing about the desert is that there’s almost always a train / going by … I drove for a long time beside a boxcar with doors open … I could hide my most treasured things on the other side of / that moving window.” (p. 93)
Come for the heartbreak, stay for the imagery: Liebegott has a lot of strengths as a poet, but it’s her metaphors, by turns hilarious and dangerous, that linger in my mind the longest. She asks, “who will help me sweep up the puff of dust and plaster / that tumbles down inside me after each depression?” (p. 41) And in a later poem, “how does a person dislodge the scenes / that burn inside them like arsoned cars?” (p. 91)
If The Summer of Dead Birds is a memoir, it’s the autobiography of love and loss, and it’s set in the place where those things meet and become something new.
if it’s true we’re dead, I won’t know how to love this
every wreckage, the beginning of something else
Look at us beginning, says the tiny pulsating water bubble
Hi, nice to meet you, I’m the loam that grew a heart (p. 59)