Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a heartbreaking work that riffs off Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” emptying it of its signification, filling it with black feathers, cursing crows, and loss. What I find most fascinating about the book is the very thing I didn’t seem to care for when I began reading. He lays symbolic representation naked upon the page in such a way that the reader must struggle with the overt nature of the symbolic as an often times intrusive part of the reading experience. Certainly it feels so very on the nose that readers may grow a little frustrated at first. However, the joy of reading a book by a press like Graywolf is that the editors aren’t likely to let readers down, so readers can rest assured that the book is quite good.
Porter’s book plays with structure, sound, and language. Avoiding the traditional genre markers of the novel, Grief has the freedom to represent the mood of the subject with complete honesty—a shape-shifting text filled with mood swings—in a highly compressed and very effective narrative.
The book shifts between the perspective of a father who has lost his wife, his boys who have lost their mother, and a black crow that has come to stay (part of the father’s psyche). This point of view switch grants Porter the latitude to jump between months, moods, and memories without undue narrative connection, which gives the prose in the book a surprising lightness. Crow is perhaps the most fascinating character as his prose switches between nearly incoherent passages to incredibly insightful ones. For example, one of Crow’s sections reads:
Gormin’ere, worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cutout? Let me buck flap snuch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap[…].
And another section reads:
I loved waiting, mid-afternoon, alone in their home, for them to come back from school. I acknowledge that I could have been accused of showing symptoms related to unfulfilled maternal fantasies, but I am a crow and we can do many things in the dark, even play at Mommy.
The father (and the reader) grows to trust Crow, and that trust is often repaid with cruelty. In one scene, for example, we see Crow encouraging the father to move on, but when the father heeds this advice, Crow taunts him the next day by mimicking the father on the couch “pumping and groaning.”
The perspectives of the sons are perhaps the most consistent, which makes sense; Children have no experience with death and thus the effects of losing a parent are observed more in hindsight. The boys play games and (upon receiving erroneous advice from Crow) wait patiently for their mother to return to them. Their games are an important part of the narrative as the reader sees them struggle with alienation, the delicate nature of living things, and familial bonds.
The father’s perspective toggles between a cohesive narrative and a small smattering of ideas. It’s a very real portrayal of the incomprehensible sadness one feels during a time of loss as well as those rare moments of clarity where life seems almost possible again. In one moment, for example, Porter writes:
Such a bad joke, bad dream, bad poem, so different is this cr
E ak, ik ey, evice, ea, toc
A few pages later, he writes:
Moving on, as a concept, was mooted, a year or two after, by friendly men on behalf of their well-intentioned wives. Women who loved us. Women who knew me as a child […] Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.
It is here that the book begins to come together completely. The father, who has finished his academic manuscript and now understands that loss is not something that he can get over but must accept in his life as a new condition of living, finally begins to return to himself, to the father and man he was before the death of his wife. The family grows closer and Crow is no longer needed as a coping mechanism.
As a teacher, I’m always searching for teachable books and I find Grief is the Thing with Feathers to be a book that lends itself easily to my instructional needs—especially when I’m dealing with students who are relatively new to writing. So frequently I speak to young writers about the importance of symbolic representation as I frequently find they are only concerned with plot, character, or dialogue. They read stories for class and try to reverse engineer what the authors are doing in an attempt to hone skills within themselves but I’m always looking for a text that demonstrates symbolic representation in such a way that they can readily access it without the dependence on me to break it down for them. Porter’s book is that text I’ve been searching for.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an ambitious debut and a must read for anyone who has every suffered a great loss or for professors who are looking for a very teachable text.
Grief is The Thing with Feathers
by Max Porter
Graywolf Press; 114 p.