The Summer of Dead Birds
by Ali Liebegott
Feminist Press, 2019
103 pages, $17.95
The fourth book by Ali Liebegott, a double Lambda Literary Award winner and writer for the television show Transparent, is an elegy of loss and life, heartbreak and survival. It starts in summer, which is usually a time when people revel in change and everyone you pass embodies happiness. But this particular summer is more like winter for Liebegott. Her memoir-in-verse carries us through a season consumed by grief and depression with hints of clever humor to keep us buoyed.
The Summer of Dead Birds is a revelation. Liebegott deftly confronts her own losses—by death and divorce and the instability that both bring—while also addressing our collective ones. Her sorrow does not end in a grave lament but with a pathway that leads us to a place where we can breathe through our grief in order to live.
The book is told in four parts, beginning with “Winter” and Liebegott’s obsession with a dying bird in her yard. She wants to care for it but abandons it, convincing herself that it will get better if she doesn’t interfere. Yet it occupies her focus and later, when it dies, she stops ignoring it and finally throws it in the garbage. The dead bird and her stubborn refusal to confront the truth are harbingers of things to come.
Liebegott navigates an uncomfortable shift in her perception of life following her mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis. She struggles with her inability to readjust the course of their lives as they plummet toward an irrevocably sad ending.
if you want to see time move fast
watch a fifty-five-year-old woman
go from gardening to dead in two months
Her grief peeks through the cracks as she cries over tangled drawstrings and acquiesces to her mother-in-law’s whims, which confuse her, but make the transition from life to death—for both the living and the dying—easier to bear.
it’s terrifying to go into a room where someone’s dying
even if you’ve been in those rooms before
to push open the bedroom door
and find the right thing to say to the vanishing body
This sentiment extends beyond her mother-in-law’s inevitable passing to Liebegott’s marriage. Death creates a divide and her wife becomes the next vanishing body.
Grief overwhelms Liebegott in “Crying Season.”
I’d never been around grief this big, it scared me
She watches her partner mourn, moving from room to room while she clings to the fading scents of her mother. A grand, intangible force transitions to the foreground. Life crumbles along the edges and Liebegott is a bystander watching it all happen. I recognized myself in this passage and my habit of wearing my grandfather’s favorite flannel coat in the months after his death to pancreatic cancer. The big grief on this page was mine and for once, I felt comfortable in admitting it. It’s a testament to how Liebegott renders her own grief so honestly that we empathize and find space to grieve our own losses as well.
Divorce moves Liebegott to her writing studio. She spends her days lying facedown on the bed or combing through photographs before eventually wandering the neighborhood on long winding walks that leave her feet bleeding at the end of the day. She finds dead birds wherever she goes, and they only serve to anchor her further in her emotional depression. Her crying season culminates in a gorgeous lament:
who will help me sweep up the puff of dust and plaster
that tumbles down inside me after each depression
every hammer swing sends pieces of drywall, scuttling
down my chest to settle in my hollow legs
I’ve become a walking urn of my own ashes
Liebegott copes by focusing on Rorschach, her Dalmatian. Rorschach is no longer a young pup. She is deaf and blind with limited mobility. Her time will soon end too, and Liebegott is haunted by the realization that no matter where she adjusts her gaze, grief is persistent. It only pauses momentarily before finding us once again.
Liebegott finally confronts mortality in “The Summer of Dead Birds.” She addresses her failed marriage and the lies she and her ex-wife indulged in to support their fantasies. Then she turns that lens on Rorschach. She begins to figure out what it will mean for her to live with the loss of a dog who has become like part of her body, to finally experience her own big grief.
The book concludes with Liebegott taking Rorschach on a road trip to Felicity, California, aka The Official Center of the World and the title of this last chapter. Her grief is in its own death throes. She reflects on “the breakups, the deaths, and the impending deaths” with a tone of timid acceptance. Her survival depends on heeding a friend’s advice:
Don’t become the thing that tries to overthrow the grief
The memoir is an astoundingly fast read, not just because of the page count, but because of Liebegott’s plain-spoken language and swift verse. The length works to her advantage. If it were longer, she would be bludgeoning us with her grief. But it’s just enough that we soak in it and, like her, leave it behind before we drown in it. It’s such a wonderful read, carrying you along from loss to loss and then to living so quickly that you have to close the book, give it time, and then sit with it again—reading it more slowly the second (or third) go-round. You must read it once to be cleansed and then again to baptized and renewed.