This is an ARC review of Ali Liebegott’s The Summer of Dead Birds, which releases March 12, 2019.
*Special thanks to Feminist Press for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication
Ali Liebegott is a writer on the award-winning TV show Transparent, a series which often addresses heavy and difficult topics with grace, integrity, and a good deal of deadpan wit. Her newest work, a memoir-in-verse named The Summer of Dead Birds, perfectly validates why she’s regarded so highly for her work on the show. Through it, we, as does Ali, find humor in the hardest places, and beauty in the darkest.
Liebegott’s latest turn is a rare kind of special. It is slim, coming in at a mere 100 pages — but oh, is it powerful. Part true story, part poem, Liebegott’s latest turn is a manual for the grieving and an ode to things that are fiercely loved.
The Summer of Dead Birds begins with the death of a family member. Ali’s mother-in-law has been diagnosed with cancer, and her rapid decline leaves Ali and her then-wife reeling. Next comes the death of a marriage. Ali’s therapist warns her that “few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother,” an observation that enrages Ali and has her declaring “we will, we will.” The next chapter sees Ali moving out of the shared house and into her writing studio — sans wedding ring. Finally, there’s the impending decline of Ali’s beloved dog and faithful companion, Rorschach. These varied and overwhelming losses bring Ali to a Crying Season: a period of grief and mourning where she over-assigns meaning to everything, including a park full of dead blackbirds.
Ali attempts to move out of her Crying Season by taking a long and winding road trip to Felicity, California: The Center of the World. With her 13-year-old dog in tow, Ali begins to grapple with her losses. She wonders, “How does a person dislodge the scenes/ that burn inside them like arsoned cars?” She considers getting Rorschach’s ears taxedermied after she dies. She struggles to forgive her cheating ex-partner. And she realizes, finally, that the only balm for loss is living.
There’s always an underlying joy in Liebegott’s writing; it is raw and honest, the language spare and with yawning spaces. Even as things become increasingly difficult, and as her grief anchors her, “pushing hard against [her] ribcage like a doorframe,” you never get the sense that she’s lost all hope. Even as she realizes that you can never really share what it’s like to live through your grief with anyone else, Ali knows she’s not alone.
The closing stanza of the book — “I close my eyes and concentrate on her head resting on my leg/ I want to remember the exact weight of it” — is a refreshing and jarring reminder that the only way any of us can ever come to terms with loss is by truly living in the moment. Being present for all the time we’ve been given here.
Liebegott’s The Summer of Dead Birds is a must-read. Read it twice: drink it down the first time in one sitting, and then slowly take it in again. Sit with her through her pain. Wonder, “do goodbyes happen years before the actual goodbye?” And most of all, “don’t become the thing that tries to overthrow grief.” Let it happen to you so that you can go on living.