Review: Grief is the Thing With Feathers

17 April 2017

Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter

Published by Faber and Faber


IN my book Twice the Speed of Dark, there is a line in which grief manifests as a crow. It is a moment when Anna has finally found the fortitude to look at old photographs of her daughter Caitlin, who was killed by her violent boyfriend.

There is a picture of Caitlin and Anna standing together in the garden, hugging each other and smiling. They look happy in each others company, she thinks. A black crow screams between her and the picture. It lands clawing on her chest, flapping ragged blackness before her eyes. She cannot look any more.

It seemed like an appropriate embodiment, a harsh and scrabbling darkness. This mental image was one of the reasons I was drawn to reading Grief Ts The Thing With Feathers. Having noticed the connection and after reading Max Porter’s wonderful book, I looked up ‘grief and crows’ as the wild, disjointed logic of this book made it seem that crows and grief had an ancient, folkloric connection. But in my not very exhaustive search, I could only find the crow’s traditional relationship to death as a harbinger not a consequence.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 16.25.20There is also a mythical manifestation of the crow as the smart trickster, an aspect that comes out in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Crow is an absurdist, a ruffling, raucous presence. Unsettling and welcomed. Why make sense when there is no sense to be made, he seems to propose. Permission to not make sense, he seems to offer. And in grief, perhaps that is what is needed.

He sits still. His neck ceases jutting, his beak refrains from jabbing. For the first time since his arrival he stops suggesting constant readiness for violence with his posture.

He sits as still as I have ever seen an un-stuffed animal sit. Dead still.

Grief Is The Thing with Feathers

In grief, for some, in my experience, a kind of undoing seems to proliferate. There is no sense to be made. As much as making sense of any given situation is often hailed as the way to manage it, with grief this is often not possible. The death of a loved one marks another of the profound mysteries that cannot really, easily be understood. Thus, each must find a new path, with a map they write themselves. Why am I here? Why is my beloved not here? Where does my love go now? The period of grieving is, often, not the time to answer such questions but the time to learn to bear their weight and irresolution.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.

Grief Is The Thing with Feathers

Max Porter’s book describes this undoing beautifully. There is in the text comedic failure, stubborn practicality, sniping irritation, glorious humour. The grieving are not saintly, heroic, or necessarily landed with any other further burden than that of being laid before us in their muddled, loving, confused and unravelled state.

This book, though slim, though with a light and beautiful touch, gets into your face, a waggle of glimmering black, a sharpness of claw and beak, a croak of misery and the caw of a derisive laugh. Dad, Boys and Crow, with the supporting presence of Ted Hughes, sweep across the pages, the terrible pain of their loss smoothed and made holdable, manageable, in the shake and role of the glittering tumble. It is a beautiful, moving book.

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