Things with feathers

‘Through that doorway came Crow.’ (Ted Hughes ‘The Door’ from Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow)

Max Porter’s debut ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ is a rather pleasing foray into the literary world. I was recommended the lyrical free verse dialogic novella (for lack of a better formal description) by a student and admittedly did not know what to expect. It would appear that this tabula rasa of expectation was perhaps the best way to encounter the slim volume which takes the inspiration from Ted Hughes’ Crow while transposing it over Dickinson’s ‘Hope’ poem.

In his debut Porter tracks the stages of grief resulting from a loss of a family member; the mother. The lyrical narrative follows multiple perspectives, similarly to Hughes’ Crow: the father, the children as well as the Crow himself. All the voices are presented as sharing in the process after she who was so ‘busy living … was gone’, with the Crow metaphorically serving, in my opinion, several purposes. Although stereotypically associated with death, sorrow, bad omens and believed to be feeding on the grief of widowhood (much in line with the theme of the novella), Porter’s Crow appears to fulfil a contrary function. Though its initial appearance as grief personified seems aggressive and leaves the Dad ‘smacked back, winded’, the corvine soon becomes representative not only of grief but acceptance, inner strength as well as hope; thus all become ‘the thing with feathers’. Porter fully utilises the trickster mythology of the Crow becoming everything: the void, the haunting reminder, the ‘accredited caregiver’.

Whilst mapping out the trajectory of grief in any specific terms is inherently difficult (and often comes across as disconnected platitudes and clichés at best), Porter’s amorphous use of corvine imagery provides rather convincing blurred clarity. This in itself effectively presents the intangible reality of the theme. The mythical and abstract quality of Crow the Trickster allows Porter to explore the inevitability of encountering mourning at some point as it surprises us to ‘finally meet you’; the many faceted reactions of individuals struggling to escape ‘simple fury’ or ‘fighting’ the mental suffering itself; the loss of self following the loss of a loved one because ‘things didn’t work as they should’. Porter’s Crow, while omnipresent and ‘waiting … alone in their home’ offers solace and, quite unlike Hughes’, its spiritual quality is ultimately gentle and compassionate. The Crow becomes a kindly guide through ‘grief [as] a long-term project’, the inner human ‘for want of a less dirty word: faith’ to clutch to when any external ‘kindness’ remains unbearable and hollow. Hence, the final message appears parallel to Dickinson’s ‘hope … that perches in the soul … [and] never stops – at all’. Perhaps one could argue that Porter ties both hope and despair together as an undisputable sign of human existence.

Personally, albeit Porter’s use of Hughes as inspiration may be far from subtle, I do not feel that it devalues the text. I particularly like the authorial decision which establishes the Dad as a Hughes scholar, which I feel adds another dimension to Porter’s choice of corvine imagery. However, what I believe is particularly poignant is that ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ is a novella about love; ‘Unfinished. Beautiful,’ and all-encompassing. Therefore, I find the significance given to Hughes’ poem ‘Lovesong’ key. Thus Porter succeeds not only in replicating another’s structure but in crafting a post-modern text seeped in universal ideas. Once the Dad, the boys, … we are ‘done being hopeless’, they/ we can accept the parting and ‘beat the hell out of’* grief since the loved one is ‘complete inside … safe and sure forever’**.


*Ted Hughes ‘A Horrible Religious Error’

**Ted Hughes ‘Lovesong’


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