Grief Is the Thing with Feathers  by  Max Porter  (Faber & Faber, Sept 2015; Graywolf, June 2016)   Reviewed by Ben Eastham

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
by Max Porter
(Faber & Faber, Sept 2015; Graywolf, June 2016)

Reviewed by Ben Eastham

“In the Beginning was Scream”—according to Ted Hughes’ “Lineage”—followed hard upon by Crow. To enter the inchoate world, the eponymous corvid hero of Hughes’ famous suite of poems must pass an “Examination at the Womb-Door,” where he is faced with a riddle: “Who is stronger than death?” “Me, evidently,” Crow replies, and passes into the realm of life to wreak havoc upon it: retching up heads in attempting to pronounce the word “love,” attacking the sun, inexpertly nailing God and Man together, et cetera.

The same Crow introduces himself into Max Porter’s debut novel by ringing twice upon the doorbell. The sound barely registers with the young father who skulks inside his suburban house, numbed by the recent death of his wife. He is shocked, frightened, and embittered; suffocated by the petty social rituals of mourning (“the knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe”) when his grief seems to him world-ending. After dragging himself to the door, there is a “crack and a whoosh” and he is “smacked back, winded.” He smells a “sweet furry stink,” is swallowed by feathers, and when he dares to open his eyes is confronted by “one shiny jet-black eye as big as my face.” Crow, scourge of the universe, has come to give him a hug.

Thus Ted Hughes’ most celebrated creation is recast as unlikely metafictional Pooka to Porter’s stricken husband, a “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter,” summoned into being by his need. In a series of prose fragments narrated by Dad, his two sons (“The Boys”), and Crow, we learn about the intrusion into a family home of a mythological creature with supernatural powers whose first words are to promise that he “won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.”*

Porter plays the smallness of his domestic setting against Hughes’ propensity for the epic to wry comic effect. Hughes’ Crow is a trickster, a jester and breaker of taboos whose cunning allows him to transgress and overthrow God’s order. Porter’s Crow relishes this status beyond the bounds of good and evil—describing himself as “the rotten core, the Grünewald, the nails in the hands, the needle in the arm, the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot ever write poems, the slammed door, the in-principio-erat-verbum”—but is nonetheless content to color in zoo pictures with the boys. When Dad needs Crow to be the symbol of some deranged atavistic power, so that he can feel he is engaging with some elemental power and briefly transcend the narrow strictures of western civilisation, Crow obliges: “… krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cutout? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, … (I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic … whatever gets him through).”

Transplanting Crow from Hughes’ cracked mythopoeia into suburbia gives these men a grander register for their grief, an escape from the mundane realities of bereavement which so affront the felt magnitude of our love. It is hard to continue to “measure,” as Vladimir Nabokov does in Speak, Memory, “the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behaviour of nebulae” when the violent loss of that love seems to leave the world unmoved. As The Boys ask in the wake of their mother’s death, “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? … There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise.” Instead, they discover, “we stayed in our PJs and people visited and gave us stuff.” The miraculous appearance of Crow is a recognition by the universe of the cosmic implications of their loss.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers extends its homage to Ted Hughes by characterizing Dad as a literary type engaged in writing a book on the poet. Hughes’ biography is a literary genre unto itself, and one that I (and I suspect Porter) would be reluctant to wade directly into. Yet it would be remiss to ignore the fact that Hughes composed the best part of the “Crow” poems in the six years between the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, and the death of his lover Assia Wevill by the same means in 1969 (she took his four-year-old daughter with her). Dad is thus not only a student of Hughes but, as a recent widower and writer who spends his time in the company of Crow, an oblique study of him.

One of the boys relates how Dad idolized Hughes, pilgrimaging as a teenager to see his hero speak at Oxford. Shaking with fear, he stands up at the end of the talk to ask a question, but is cruelly put down by the moderator. His shame is redeemed when, on leaving, the poet approaches him to lay a fatherly hand on his shoulder. Now it is Hughes’ poetic creation that offers Dad succour. We might tenuously suggest that his relationship to literature has matured: that in youth we revere the writer’s personality, in adulthood his work. An extension of that principle might suggest that the most valuable literary criticism traces the legacy of an oeuvre upon its readers, rather than tracking backwards to the by-now past and incidental life of its writer. The work continues to exist and effect change in the world, though its writer doesn’t (a version of that homiletic, which isn’t to say untrue, saying about how the dead live on in the lives of their loved ones). By that measure, this is a valuable contribution to the literature on Hughes.

Dad might be said to have Crow on his mind, though to dispute whether Crow is merely a figment of his imagination (or a projection of his trauma, if you prefer) is beside the point. As Jimmy Stewart said in defense of the invisible rabbit standing six-foot-three-and-a-half-inches (“now let’s stick to the facts”) who accompanied him on his various drinking binges in the 1950 film Harvey: “you see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.” Further to this common-sense rejoinder is the fact that Crow belongs to the corpus of living literature, which Flann O’Brien describes in At Swim-Two-Birds as a “limbo from which discerning authors [should] draw their characters as required,” and whose members are more real to the community of writers and readers around the world than any number of historical figures or religious zealots. Crow now belongs to what Larkin once accused lesser poets (including Hughes) of raiding, the “myth kitty” that provides us with exemplars on how to manage such all-too-human circumstances as grief, war, ecological catastrophe, and death.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is ultimately a fractured, elegiac expression of that faith in art and literature. “Many people said, ‘You need time,’ when what I needed was Shakespeare, Ibn ‘Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf.” Crow, whether the literary symbol described in Hughes’ book or the hulking corvid that knocks on the door, helps Porter’s emotionally disordered men to connect with themes beyond the grief that has suffused their lives. Art is figured here as a means of helping us to transcend our circumstances. This is the ambition of both Porter’s (superficially modest) and Hughes’ (vastly immodest) literary projects, albeit that they differ in where that revelation might be found and of what it might consist. Towards the end of the book, one of The Boys relates a moment in which joy reentered their lives: “‘Dad said, ‘We can never think too much about how important Picasso is,’ and my brother said, ‘Wankerama Dad!’ and Dad was nearly sick from laughing.” Art—in Porter’s witty, sensitive, outlandish expression of it—does not so much transport us to another world as alert us to the extraordinary beauty of our own.


* In a 1994 letter to Terry Gifford cited in Sam Solnick’s Poetry and the Anthropocene, Ted Hughes draws attention to Carl Gustav Jung’s description of his therapy as a “way of putting the human being back in contact with the primitive human animal.”


Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, and assistant editor at art-agenda. This year his writing on art and literature has featured in the London Review of Books, FriezeThe New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. He is the co-author, with Katya Tylevich, of My Life as a Work of Art (Laurence King, September 2016). 


banner image: Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 46 [for Eva Hesse]