Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Graywolf Press. 128pp, $14.00
After the suicide of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes wrote what he considered to be his most important poetic work, Crow: From the Life and Times of the Crow. At the book’s center is Crow, one of folklore’s iconic figures. Hughes uses this feathered symbol of death to take on mythology, Christianity, and conventional poetry.
Crow performs monumental tasks—in one poem, he binds the Heavens to the Earth—but always with the nefarious air of a trickster: when the nail he uses to join the terrestrial and the celestial becomes “gangrenous and stank . . . Crow / Grinned.” In another poem, aptly named “A Childish Prank,” we are given the origin story of the two sexes. Crow is the creator, biting a worm in two and sticking one end partially into man and the other end completely into woman.
This is more or less the same Crow we find in the pages of Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Except that here, in a slim novel barely more than 100 pages, Crow is given the space to grow beyond his folkloric origins. The book’s premise is simple. A father and his two sons are mourning in the wake of the mother’s unexpected death. Dad, as the recent widower is called, was in the middle of writing a book about Hughes’s Crow when his wife died. And the boys, always referred to in the plural, are perplexed by the lack of chaos in the wake of tragedy. All three are unsure of how to proceed with their lives. Then one night Crow arrives on the doorstep of their London flat.
Certainly an odd choice for a caregiver, Crow in his own way seems to guide Dad and the boys through the grieving process. There is something refreshing, if not menacing, about the way in which Crow confronts grief, refusing to tiptoe around the obvious pain and suffering at hand. He pokes and prods without the usual quiet hush taking on a double-ended roll, to both sooth and stir up pain. As Crow himself states: “I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”
If we are to take the title at face value, then Crow, most certainly “the thing with feathers,” is synonymous with grief. But it is a very strange approach. Arriving on the scene at a moment of acute desperation, he takes a perverse pleasure in the family’s tragedy, calling his task “the best gig, a real bit of fun.” This playfulness—including “snack[ing]” on Dad’s “un-brushed teeth”—stands in stark contrast with the more familiar grief that we witness in the first few pages, which manifests itself in a blanket of numbness that induces Dad to drink and smoke while waiting for whatever comes next. He also alludes to the “clichés” and “routines” around him. He describes his grief as “fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar.”
Against this “familiar” backdrop, Crow is a visceral shock to the senses. He comes across as the most developed, the most “alive,” character in the book, despite likely being a phantom of the other characters’ imaginations; Dad first describes Crow as, “one shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testical.”
Porter doesn’t shy away from the gruesome details. He is clearly distinguishing Crow from a mere literary device. He wants us to experience Crow with all of our senses, including his smell: “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” And when we finally hear him speak, he spouts a wholly original vocabulary, a mixture of British slang, poetic devices, and what can only be described as scatting. Logical descriptions dissolve into nonsensical trills like “trip-trap,” “gack-pack-nack” and “lint (toe-jam-rint).” And he often interjects thoughts with “oi, stab it!” We’re left wondering, which is grief: Dad’s abstract numbness or Crow’s assault on the senses?
Crow is clearly some unique side of grief, a putrid, crass side, but perhaps also a lighter side. After all, for a novel about grief, Porter’s book is surprisingly funny. And Porter’s style is just as rebellious as Crow himself. The novel is told in sections titled either “Dad,” “Crow,” or “Boys,” and each section feels like an experiment in form, as well as an experiment in grief. Even the most prosaic passages teeter into the realm of verse. The “Boys” sections always take the form of stanzas, and their style occupies some middle ground between Dad’s logical prose and Crow’s descent into poetic anarchy. Several of the novel’s sections begin with “once upon a time,” or else we’re told by the end that it was a dream. One of Crow’s sections ends with a list of tongue-and-cheek “Comprehension Questions” to assess our reading of the passage.
Rather than launching his readers into an abstract, morbid dirge, Porter has composed an experimental ode. In the title itself, he situates the novel alongside Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” Dickinson’s Hope, taking on the characteristics of a bird, is a loyal companion. Hope “perches in the soul,” accompanying us through “the Gale” and “the storm” with an unwavering perseverance. Could it be, Porter is asking, that grief, too, is a loyal companion? The implication being that grief might even be a comfort.
Porter is challenging our notion of grief. We like to think of it as something to overcome, diminish, or rid ourselves of altogether. We talk about it as a process, with steps, as if we only had to walk from point A to point B in order to reach that other, happy side. But Grief Is the Thing with Feathers dwells unabashedly in that period when grief is our only truly comforting companion.
Sarah Coolidge is a Bay Area writer and editorial assistant at Two Lines Press. She writes primarily about photography and international literature.
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