What an odd little book is Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. Not your typical novel, it is told from three points of view, Dad, The Boys, and Crow. Each “chapter” is short, sometimes only a paragraph and more than a page or two is unusual. It is easy to read quickly but you don’t want to read it quickly. It is kind of like poetry but it is not. But it isn’t straight prose narrative either. It is tragic and funny and sometimes hallucinatory, covered in sadness and grief and bewilderment, full of questions that one asks when in the depths of darkness — how can I go on? why did this happen? what are we going to do now?
Suddenly widowed with two young boys — Mom fell at home and hit her head — Dad is struggling to complete a book called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis. One night Crow arrives in their lives. Crow is many things from mythic trickster to scavenger. The Boys and Dad all talk about Crow and Dad talks to Crow and Crow is presented as being a real creature, but after awhile one starts to wonder whether Crow is a living bird or a figment of Dad’s imagination and result of a mental breakdown.
When Crow arrives he promises he “won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.” And this turns out to be a few years.
I spent a lot of time reading and wondering how the book was connected to Emily Dickinson and her poem “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Crow did not seem hopeful and in Dickinson’s poem hope is a little bird that weathers the storm not a big sometimes vulgar, sometimes nonsensical crow. But when Crow finally says goodbye he and Dad have a conversation:
BIRD: But the credit should go to the boys , and to the deadline. I knew that by the time you sent your publisher your final draft of the Crow essay my work would be done.
MAN: I would be done grieving?
BIRD: No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you are still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.
Aha! So Crow did represent a kind of hope, not hope itself, but he brought hope with him, hope that the grief might eventually end. Though as the conversation implies, grief never truly goes away, and Crow goes on to say that grief “is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood and beautifully chaotic.”
But Crow is not just related to Emily Dickinson, Crow comes out of Dad’s work writing about Ted Hughes. You may know that Hughes wrote a series of Crow poems and published a selection of poems in 1970 called Crow: From the Life and Songs of Crow. It was originally to be part of a much larger project in which Hughes, according to Neil Roberts at the Ted Hughes Society, was attemtpting to write an epic folk-tale. Hughes began the Crow project not long after Sylvia Plath’s death but was unable to complete it after the death of Assia Wevill and his daughter Shura.
So many interesting connections! I have not read the Crow poems. Some of them are available online and they are intense and strange. Because I have not read them and because I don’t know all that much about Ted Hughes, I probably missed a few things in Porter’s book. But I still found the book moving so I don’t think full Hughes knowledge is necessary. Still, I think I would like to read Hughes’ Crow sometime and then perhaps give Porter’s book another go.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers is Porter’s first book. It is so skilled and polished I was amazed about its debut status. I kept thinking, surely he has written other books? Nope. Clearly Porter has a long and exciting career ahead of him and I eagerly look forward to it.