When my husband died at twenty-five, family and friends said “Everything happens for a reason”, and “Give it a year”, and “Can I borrow his truck to move a mattress?” and “At least you didn’t have children”, and “Did you save any of his sperm?” and “You’ll marry again”, and “He’s not really gone, he’s just in the other room.” I checked the other room of our apartment. It was empty save for a growing stack of death-gift books. Slim works with titles like Good Grief and Embraced by the Light and When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Delivered to me by the same well-intentioned family and friends, all of them hoping someone else’s words would heal what theirs could not.
At first glance, Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, released by Faber & Faber last year in the UK and available in the US from Graywolf Press this June, looks suspiciously like such a death-gift book. It’s slim. There’s the word Grief in the title. It would fit nicely in a gift bag with a little lamb figurine. Yet, Porter’s collage of prose and lineated poetry is the very opposite of self-help. Grief does not seek to offer answers, but instead brilliantly mimics the chaos of the grieving brain, offering a vision of how loss dramatically alters it.
The book begins days after a very bad thing—the death of a wife and Mum—has happened to three very good people—a father and his two young sons. Though we get hints along the way that it was accidental and sudden, mercifully, Porter omits the heart-wrenching scene of the mother’s death. Instead, a series of brief entries narrate the aftermath from the point of view of alternating speakers—Boys (the two sons speaking as one), Dad, and Crow, a mythical bird who arrives to watch over the family in grief. Though the names are generic, the characters aren’t. The boys are brutal, self-aware scoundrels. They lie to their friends about how Mum died: “She was beaten to death.” They play loud, dangerous games, torment animals, and keep secrets from their father. Indeed, they’re often not nice to Dad, but in a later entry they offer a justification for their bad behavior: “We abused him and mocked him because it/seemed to remind him of our Mum.”
While she doesn’t get her own entries, Porter adds to the feeling of beloved Mum’s absence by granting her mentions that show the complexity of her character. There she is in the note she left on a bottle of red wine, warning her husband not to finish it off: “OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-CHEEK.” There she is with the flu, wanting her family out of the house so that she can get some sleep.
Dad is an awkward scholar at work on a tome in honor of his lifelong poet-crush, the book is titled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis. (Much like a time limit for mourning, he’s got fourteen months to finish it.) Yet it is Mum who drives the story, not just because she was witty and lovely and died and is keenly missed, but because before she died, she gave her husband a plastic crow to celebrate the completion of his book proposal. As a defender of the nest, Crow, like Mum, is cheeky. “I find humans dull except in grief.” He roams the house at night “down the dead Mum stairs” noting that “the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly covered in a film of grief.” He finds Dad asleep and whispers, “I will give you something to think about.” That’s the gift of Crow. The mystery of his coming to life gives Dad, Boys something else to think about other than missing Mum.
As readers, Crow gives us something to think about too. Through Crow, Porter connects his work to the Hughes’ collection. We begin to wonder what Porter is up to, linking Dad’s bad-things-happen-to-good-people story of loss to that of Hughes’, the much-maligned poet who became the poster child for bad-things-happen-to-bad-people after the suicide deaths of his first two wives. Is Porter connecting the deaths of all three wives? Commenting on the violence of death, no matter the cause? Defending Hughes? Mocking or celebrating the turn to poetry as a balm in times of grief?
In choosing the title for the work, Porter, who lost his own father as a boy, crosses out the “Hope” of Emily Dickinson’s poem and replaces it with grief. Porter’s Grief crosses lines between poetry and fiction. The scope of the book, beginning in the days of Mum’s death and ending with a scattering of her ashes in the year after she dies, feels novelistic. And, like a novel, it eventually satisfies the questions a fiction reader would ask: How, exactly, did Mum die? What happens to the boys? Will they all be okay? Will Dad marry again? Yet the transformative power of the work lies not in discovering what happened to these characters, but in echoing the shape and sounds of their grief.
The work opens with a seven-line poem from the Boys calling out to Dad in sleeplessness. Porter inserts extra spaces between each line signifying, perhaps, the gaps where Mum’s voice once filled in the silence. When Dad next appears in a five-page entry that begins as paragraphs of prose and ends in poem form, Porter establishes a fluidity of form. Another entry is followed by bullet-pointed reading comprehension questions that mock the desire to understand loss through literature.
Do you think the brothers in this excerpt are realistic?
Does the rural setting of the story change the way you engage with the characters?
If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?
Write the next paragraph of the story, focusing on the themes of man versus nature, boots, brothers, and the Russian revolution.
Dad drafts a Table of Contents for a hypothetical grief memoir, striking through each chapter title and replacing it with “I miss my wife.” Another, a letter addressed to “Dear Crow,” from Dad, is signed “Sharp edges./Bad breath.” The lines of poetry tighten. Italics, ALL CAPS, onomatopoeic, and animal sounds arise from the pages.
The shape of the book, like the grieving brain, is chaotic. The grieving brain can’t navigate the visual density of paragraphs for long. It can’t manage to remember the world of a weighty novel. It has a short attention span. It cries out and gesticulates and bounces from one thought to the next. It mourns and then mocks itself for mourning. It lashes out.
A key scene from “Part III: Defence of the Nest”, becomes violent as Crow attacks “the demon who fed on grief,” punishing it for taking on the voice of Mum, calling out to the boys as they sleep and tricking them into believing, for a moment, that her death was just a bad dream. As the work comes to a close, the hope crossed out by the title reappears, thanks to a nest-defending Crow. There is a balm after all. Porter’s book is a gift in its understanding of the sounds and reverberations of grief. Yet, Porter avoids a broken-but-stronger sentimentality by landing some final sucker punches. Dad, in recalling that snowy day when his wife was in bed with the flu and begged him to take the boys out, remembers how hapless he was without her help, and concludes, “Perhaps if I’d known it was a dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives I would have said BUCK UP YOU LITTLE TURDS or HELP ME. Or take me, take me instead please.”
In the end, however, Crow leaves this family with the courage to wave and cry out “KRAAAA” whenever they see one of his kind.
We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows.
It’s not that weird.