Book Review: “Grief Is The Thing With Feathers” by Max Porter

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Artwork by Kelly Blevins.

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“Grief is the thing with feathers,” eh? I see what you did there.

Read me, he said.

Just because the title grabbed me? I don’t think so. Have you seen my list of books to read? Who wrote you?

Max Porter.

I’ve never heard that name before.

I’m his first book.

Crow is an immaculate conception, a virgin birth (not that Max Porter is a virgin, although he might be, you never know).

I’ve never heard of you and I have no idea what you are. I bought three books this week that I want to read – forget it.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

I can’t. I am crushed by the weight of all the books I haven’t read. Go away.

Rat-a-tat-tat. Knock. Knock.

No.

But I’m really short. Look at me. You could finish me this afternoon if you wanted to.

Stop.

Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG.

FINE. (I throw my twenty-euro bill on the counter like it has personally offended me.)

No need for that kind of violence.

Shut up.

All jokes aside, I had no idea what to expect when I bought this book. I liked the sound of the title, it won some things… and that was it. I can’t for the life of me tell you why I picked this little volume over all the other books I could have bought. I certainly can’t tell you why I decided to start reading it the moment I got home instead of putting it away on a shelf until I thought it was time. It was already time, right now, I just didn’t know it yet.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers tells the story of a family working through a terrible loss. After the death of their mother, the two boys find solace in breaking things and going on long walks. The father struggles to keep it together and finish his book on Ted Hughes’ Crow, a series of poems about a character named Crow roaming the earth, which Hughes wrote after the death of Sylvia Plath. And then Crow appears on their doorstep. He messes up the papers, leaves feathers on the pillows, and whispers a warbled mess of words in their ear, something about blackbirds and boxes of stories.

The book consists of a series of dramatic pieces, ranging from a few lines to six pages long, going back and forth between the father, his sons, and Crow. They reflect on what has happened, what will happen, and spend a lot of time bickering and getting on each other’s nerves. It is clear that there is a lot of love in his home, but it has had the rug pulled out from under it and now they’re all struggling to find their footing again.

Much like the monster in A Monster Calls and Last Night I Sang To The Monster (review here), grief takes a physical form, something dark and powerful that will not go away and that will not let itself be denied. Crow has black eyes, sharp claws, and smells of decay. Moving between sheer white noise and standup comedy, he is a dark trickster who knows your deepest fears better than you do and isn’t afraid to point them out. When he first enters the house, the father refuses to greet him, but Crow pins him down until he is acknowledged.

I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.

Put me down, I said.

Not until you say hello.

Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.

You’re frightened. Just say hello.

Hello.

Say it properly.

I lay back, resigned, and wished my wife wasn’t dead. I wished I wasn’t lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway. I wished I hadn’t been obsessing about this thing just when the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful. I had some clarity.

Hello Crow, I said. Good to finally meet you.

The collection being as fragmented as it is works really well because that is what your brain does when it is going through an emotional trauma; it struggles to focus and bounces from one unconnected thought to another. It doesn’t make sense because this kind of grief defies logic; there is no neat autopsy that will explain everything, and you cannot put it away until you’re ready to face it. Crow won’t allow it. He will trap you into his great big wings until you finally look him into the eye and call him by his name.

I can’t in all honesty tell you that I understand this book. I know very little about Ted Hughes and his work, and like with most poems I read, I’m sure that 90% of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers has gone completely over my head. However, I still feel like I get it. I feel it. I feel its strange sounds, I feel its raw emotions, and I definitely feel the dark moments of comedy that take you by surprise every time they occur. As I’ve said before in my review of Richard Siken’s Crush, that is what good poetry does: it evokes something inside of you, even if you don’t quite understand where that feeling is coming from.

I cannot wrap my head around this book, but it still conveys a feeling of loss and emptiness.

I don’t get it, but I get it.

Fancy that.


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