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Wings and Words: why you should read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Tom Martland explores a story in the hinterland between poetry, prose, and drama.

CW: Bereavement, Suicide

 I’m the kind of book-nerd who not only alphabetises the books by author’s surname, but also subdivides them by form and subject. I have my fiction, the literary criticism I never touch (a rite of passage for any English student), non-fiction, drama, and, of course, poetry. Generally, these classifications work rather well: it’s not difficult to find the place to put a new book in spite of the frequency with which my shelves grow. Don’t worry – I already know I have a problem. Every now and again, though, something will come along to defy my careful organisation. Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (2015) so epitomises this conundrum that I’m at least partly convinced Porter – whose day job was as an editor – is deliberately aiming to frustrate bookshop staff into keeping his books in their store windows for fear of confronting the impossible question: where does it go? 

Defining Grief is a very difficult thing.  It was listed in the Sunday Times Top 100 Novels of the Twenty-First Century, but anyone who has actually opened the book will be aware how fully it situates itself in the liminal space between all forms of literature. The ‘novel’ classification may well be another publisher ploy: it’s not easy to sell a hybrid short story-poetry anthology partly narrated by grief personified as a talking anthropomorphic bird, ripped from Ted Hughes’ Crow (1970). This, perhaps, is the most promising chance we have of categorising the book: its history is rooted firmly in poetry. Dad, one of the book’s four speaking characters, is obsessed with Hughes. The implication seems to be that this is the reason his grief takes the form of Crow. Ted Hughes married American poet-novelist Sylvia Plath. By the estimations of the least critical, their relationship was tumultuous. In the analysis of the most condemnatory commentators, Hughes was the direct and most potent cause of Plath’s miscarriage and subsequent suicide. Both writers’ works were heavily influenced by the marriage, a tragedy Porter warps and reworks for his own purposes throughout Grief.

Porter is at pains to attack the roots of what we understand poetry to be. He weaponises his Crow to contemporarily transmute and, importantly, de-canonise our poetic tradition, satirising the reverence and ethereality with which we regard ‘poetry’. He uses a defaced and graffitied reproduction of Emily Dickinson’s ‘That Love is all there is’ as his epigram, in which each noun has been scribbled out – and replaced with “Crow”. In spite of his obvious adoration of  poets like Hughes (he calls him Ted), Porter refuses to bow to him. In fact, he seems somewhat to mock those that do; many of the characters allude to a book about Ted which makes “a point-blank refusal to be constructively critical either of Hughes or his poems”.

So too does he reject the opportunity to exalt his abstract subjects as conveniently distant, seraphic (and lazily undefined) forms that so often pervade work concerning love or loss. Porter’s most compelling talents rear their heads in his ability to find heartfelt truth and humour in virtually anything. Crow is crude, and yet, somehow, it’s an endearing trait. When Dad goes for the liquid escape from his grief and reaches for bottles, he finds a note left by the bird that reads “OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-CHEEK”. Crow’s frequent threats to stuff his feathers – in, suffice to say, ‘places no one wants feathers stuffed’ – make for a worrying image, yet they manage to communicate the lengths to which he will go for the family under his watch.

Porter never fails to remind us of the fecund, grisly detail of the human existence (think of the feathers again – and their relevant orifices), that which cannot be escaped: not by lovers or by grievers. Bodies, fluids, and feathers litter every page. But the details aren’t only crude; he seems to live most happily in the minutiae and so invests Grief with an extraordinary re-readability. The nature of these little moments is that discovering them for oneself is half the fun, however, as a small example: in the long list of thing Crow is not afraid of (the negative so heavily emphasised that one might begin to expect we’re not getting the whole truth) are itemised “Biographies of Sylvia” and “Motherless Children”, the latter of which you may want to read the book to understand. Perhaps this boundlessness, the boldness with which Porter is able to write through his character, is what so sets the work apart. Certainly, there are no literary limits: the bird speaks in playscripts and poetry, and once you’ll even be set comprehension questions. It seems there’s nothing he won’t try; you can decide for yourself whether that applies to the bird of the author.

This is all well and good: the metafiction, the interactivity, the humour and so on. But it’s nothing without the heart. At the centre of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is poignancy and love. Again, it would be a crime to give too much away and deprive anyone of the opportunity to be hit first-hand with every emotional punch it throws. As such, this will be as brief as an English student can make it. Grief realises its feeling, once more, in the particularity. In every sense – it’s semiotics, it’s tone, and most importantly, it’s details – the piece is full of texture. Porter seems uniquely able to find universal emotion in individuated moments: scents and sounds that were once commonplace slowly fading away. Ultimately, this is his greatest strength; the specificity makes it all real, all material, all felt.

Somehow, all of this fits into just over 100 pages. If we could call it a novel – or even a novella – it’s extraordinarily short. Recalling the first time I read Grief, on a thankfully empty train, I’m very glad no one was present to witness what must have been a harrowing and confusing parade of expressions as I progressed. It’s a few hours I will never regret. To anyone considering reading, I have three pieces of advice: first, find yourself somewhere secluded; second, allocate your heart and your head some good time to recover; third and finally, situate yourself near a bookshop so that you can satisfy the inevitable craving to read Porter’s full novel, Lanny, and probably pre-order his new collection, The Death of Francis Bacon, immediately after finishing.

Artwork Credits: Amir Pachhadze

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