Book Review: Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize, this debut novel by Max Porter is rich in linguistic experimentation
What shape does grief take?
For poet Sharon Olds, it’s a stag, leaping. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, Stag’s Leap, which tells the story of her divorce after a 30-year marriage, the animal becomes emblematic of her husband, “casting himself off a/cliff in his fervor to get free of me”. For Helen Macdonald, grief alights as a goshawk, which she describes as a “reptile”, a “fallen angel”, a creature she hoped would fly into the forest—“the dark forest to which all things lost must go”—to bring back her dead father. In Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, powerful enough to make you forget it isn’t a real, non-fictional memoir, grief comes hurtling in as “Crow”.
One evening, a few days after his wife’s death, there is a knock at the narrator’s door. At first there seems to be no one, until he is knocked down and engulfed in feathers, and a stench. “A rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.”
The novella is rich in linguistic experimentation and resonant with literary references—the title itself is a dark inversion of the beginning of an Emily Dickinson poem that compares hope to a bird perched on the soul. And anyone familiar with the work of poet Ted Hughes would know that Crow is the central subject of Crow: From The Life And Songs Of The Crow. The sequence of poems was famously born of Hughes’ collaboration with American artist Leonard Baskin—the latter credits both of them as being “crow-haunted and death-involved”—and also from an extended engagement with myth, alchemy, Kabbalah and occult Neoplatonism. The poems are sparse, powerful and function, quite vividly, as disquieting retellings, and re-imaginings, of Christian beliefs—think John Milton’s Paradise Lost or William Blake’s prophetic works. In Lineage, for example, the Biblical creation myth is revisited:
In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar
Who begat Sweat
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never
Who begat Crow
Screaming for Blood
Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth.
It is out of this negation, and nothingness, that Crow is born. And through the poems, a “vast folk epic”, Crow emerges as a quasi-human “mythic everyman”, a mischievous trickster, patched together with scraps of mythology from around the world. If Hughes envisioned Crow as the dark psyche of God, Porter plays with Crow reflecting the same of his narrator “Dad”. So devastatingly bereaved that he conjures Crow from the void at the centre of non-existence. Dad is also, rather conveniently, a Ted Hughes scholar, currently working on a book, Ted Hughes’ Crow On The Couch: A Wild Analysis, and one imagines that his loss is also fed by an obsession with the imagery of death in the Crow poems.
At times, their narrative sounds (jarringly) older, too articulate. But the section on their father as a young college student, attending a talk by Hughes, draws a picture of him in the briefest, yet most revealing strokes. Here is a man most simple, who only wanted in life the few things that kept him happy. Then loss, as it often does, falls like a knife stroke. Suddenly, in the course of a day, a life changes beyond recognition.
This is where Porter’s novella functions too as a moving essay on grief. A section where Dad tries to quantify (and pointedly fails) his loss is particularly moving: “I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands…How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.”
Yet it is Crow, the “scavenger and philosopher”, who draws us. He is dark and light, a queer conglomerate of guardian and gaoler, devil and angel, protector and taunter. A teller of analogical stories narrated like folk tales. Even, sometimes, a poem. His language too resembles Hughes’ fragmentary, disjointed lines, reading like short sharp stabs on the page:
“What good is a crow to a pack of grieving humans? A huddle. A throb. A sore. A plug. A gape. A load. A gap. So, yes. I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless, misdirect, misinform. Oi, stab it! A bloody load of time wasted. But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief.”
At one point, Crow says of Dad, “I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic, hearing the bird spirit.” And it is pertinent that in Hughes’ Crow, the poems take on the aspect of a quest, even a Shamanic journey to the underworld. The poet believed this was a fundamental theme in many myths and folk stories—to undergo a journey of transformation through the content of the stories as well as the narration itself. It is this power that Dad seems to wish to harness. To be led to where his dead wife is. For the boundaries between this world and the next to be blurred. To bring her back. So that all is “Again. I beg everything again.”
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats On Land: A Collection Of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel.
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