Book Review: The Summer of Dead Birds

Ali Liebegott, The Summer of Dead Birds
Feminist Press
2019, 103 pages, paperback, $16.00

WRITTEN AS AN autobiographical novel-in-verse, Ali Liebegott in The summer of dead birds, uses her poetry to try to learn to balance the heaviness of death with the tender strangeness of life. Ali Liebegott is an American writer, actor, comedian, and artist. She is the recipient of a Peabody Award, two Lambda Literary Awards, and a Ferro-Grumley Award. She has read and performed her work throughout the United States and Canada with the legendary queer literary tour working as a writer and a producer. When writing this book, Liebegott had just divorced, and the poetry captures the pain and struggles to adjust to a new attitude and life.

Liebegott’s personal life is her material. The book begins with her mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis. Her therapist, prophetically says: “Few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother”(34). When she hears this, Liebegott and her wife were furious: “We will we will I thought” (34). This event took a toll on both them and their marriage. Nevertheless, disease and endless nursing made their marriage difficult. Liebegott became depressed and felt powerless after the fated death of her mother-in-law. Afterward, Liebegott fell into an abyss filled with the memories of her past with her wife. To rid herself of this melancholy, Liebegott decided to re-examine herself and her life with her eternal friend, her dog, Rorschach. She visited the official center of her world, Felicity, California; and learned to cherish the treasure she owns and view the world positive way.

In The summer of dead birds, Liebegott expresses her autobiographical narrative through vivid imagery. She organizes events through chronological chapters: “winter,” “crying season,” “the summer of dead birds,” and “the official center of the world.” In the first two chapters, Liebegott strongly suggests her mourning and gloominess through the use of through repeated images of deaths of birds: “once a bird dipped right into the path of a burgundy sedan/an explosion of gray feathers” (56). And later:“does a bird say goodbye before flying off a tiny peck at a shared seed, a feather pluck nothing?”(15) The lines imply her wife’s derailment, their tragic ending and Liebegott’s despair.

As the book moves on, the image of dead birds transformed from desolation to rebirth, death turns to hope. In the third chapter, Liebegott recalls her “good old days” when she first met her wife, thinking back to what they had in common: “we both love dying things more than we let on/and we let on quite a bit” (59).  Liebegott reflections culminate in the last chapter, as she thinks about her wife and their previous closeness. Suddenly the gloomy mood and haze are dispelled. Liebegott takes a deep breath and understands the essence of grasping to be present.

One thing that surprised me about this book was the conversational nature. Liebegott depicts her monologue. A conventional poem, in my mind, is supposed to have alliteration and rhyme and meter. However, this book is more like a novel-in-verse rather than poetry. The conversational style immediately brings the audience into Liebegott’s world and makes readers who may be intimidated by poetry enjoy the work. The summer of dead birds is not a hard piece to read but to understand. Personally speaking, I have never read a book from this perspective before. It caused me to expand my view and to develop my empathy and insight. The summer of dead birds is this type of book, inspiring readers on the true meaning of death and life; and also the principles of how to live a better one. The key to balancing the depression of decline is the delight of daily life, I believe a kind of “Carpe Diem,” or as Liebegott would think about being present with her wife: “I close my eyes and concentrate on her head resting on my leg. I want to remember the exact weight of it”

−Lesley Xu

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