Max Porter - Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Porter's extraordinary debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. Full of angular wit and profound truths

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Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A NovelFaber & Faber, 2015.


Here he is, husband and father, scruffy romantic, a shambolic scholar--a man adrift in the wake of his wife's sudden, accidental death. And there are his two sons who like him struggle in their London apartment to face the unbearable sadness that has engulfed them. The father imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness, while the boys wander, savage and unsupervised.
In this moment of violent despair they are visited by Crow--antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and babysitter. This self-described "sentimental bird," at once wild and tender, who "finds humans dull except in grief," threatens to stay with the wounded family until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and the pain of loss lessens with the balm of memories, Crow's efforts are rewarded and the little unit of three begins to recover: Dad resumes his book about the poet Ted Hughes; the boys get on with it, grow up.
Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter's extraordinary debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. Full of angular wit and profound truths, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a startlingly original and haunting debut by a significant new talent.


This title was shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize 2015. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2015.




Porter’s first novel is a heartbreaking and life-affirming meditation on the dislocating power of grief. Events are presented from the viewpoint of three characters: a recently widowed dad, his two young boys, and a talking crow who, like Poe’s raven, roosts in their house as a tangible symbol of the family’s need to come to terms with their loss. The husband has been recently contracted to write a study of Ted Hughes’s Crow (written after the death of Sylvia Plath, who is also referenced here), and like the Hughes’s trickster Crow, this Crow shifts shape and personality to address the changing needs of the different family members. Porter’s characters express their feelings through observations that are profound and simply phrased. The dad recalls the harmonious feeling of lives shared early in his marriage, “when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes.” The boys, dismayed at how protectively adults coddle them against the reality of their mother’s death, wonder, “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this?” The powerful emotions evoked in this novel will resonate with anyone who has experienced love, loss, and mourning. - Publishers Weekly




“Porter delivers a staggering tale of a father grappling with the sudden loss of his wife in this sharply poetic and darkly stunning debut novel. . . . A truly exceptional work of fiction. . . . Readers will not soon forget Porter’s distinct style.”Booklist, starred review




It’s bad enough to lose a spouse, too soon and unexpectedly, and be left to bring children up alone. It’s worse, and more complicated still, when a huge crow takes her place.
“I lay back, resigned, and wished my wife wasn’t dead,” says Dad. “I wished I wasn’t lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway.” Crow is a metaphor, borrowed from the poems of Ted Hughes, whom debut novelist Porter rightly reveres—and indeed, Dad is a Hughes scholar, gently berated by the great man himself for posing a dissertation instead of a question at a reading. But Crow, framed against and obscured by the “blackness of his trauma,” is also very real. Porter’s novel, related in verse of mixed measure, charts the course of grief, the two sons “brave new boys without a Mum” who, in time, come to resent the meddling, unwanted Crow enough that one or the other of them—it doesn’t matter which, Porter tells us—becomes a teenager with a murderous hatred of “black birds with nasty beaks.” In time Dad comes out of his shattered shell enough to date, taking a Plath scholar to bed: “She was funny and bright and did her best with a fucked-up situation.” Was Crow watching? Probably, and creepily, though now, a couple of years into his invasion, his tutelage alternately maddening and to the point, he’s ready to leave, saying his goodbye in a lovely poem that’s strong enough to stand outside the context of the book, and that closes, “Just be good and listen to birds. / Long live imagined animals, the need, the capacity. / Just be kind and look out for your brother.” Porter’s daringly strange story skirts disbelief to speak, engagingly and effectively, of the pain this world inflicts, of where the ghosts go, and of how we are left to press on and endure it all.
Elegant, imaginative, and perfectly paced. A contribution to the literature of grief and to literature in general. - Kirkus Reviews



Grief Is the Thing with Feathers . . . follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.”Garth Risk Hallberg in The Millions’ “Year in Reading”


“In this slyly funny and thrillingly original work, Max Porter somehow pulls a brand new story out of the darkest despair.”―Jenny Offill


“I’m not sure I’ve read anything like Max Porter’s book before. It stunned me, full of beauty, hilarity, and thick black darkness. It will stay with me for a very long time.”―Evie Wyld


“One of the only accurate representations of grief I have ever found in literature. [Max Porter] combines verse, narrative, essay, myth, drama, jokes, bad dreams, and the language of therapy in a way that seems magical, permanent, utterly integrated, as impossible to distill to its components as it would be impossible to remove or isolate grief from love, or from life itself. Says Crow of grief, ‘It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood.’”―Sarah Manguso


“Less a novel than a totally new and feathered thing―hilarious, poetic, cheeky, postmodern, I guess, but in the most earnest and emotionally forthright way. I was as gripped as I was stunned by Porter's linguistic daredevilry, his intelligence, his emotional go-for-the-gut-ness. I loved this book.”―Heidi Julavits


“Utterly astonishing. Truly, truly remarkable.”―Nathan Filer


“Captures some beautiful truths about love and loss. . . . [It] works because of what it demands its reader provide: we have all lost someone, or love someone whom we fear losing, and so in the gaps and silences provided by this book we are invited to supply our own grief, our own love, our own hope, and this transforms the work into a luminous reading experience.”―Anna Girling




Oh, the look of a book! Whether a novel’s weight and the appearance of its typeface indicate the heft of traditional narrative ambition or a lighter, more poetic hesitancy and compression; whether we see block text and the roll call of chapters marching down a table of contents or lots of white space and a glancing, ragged-looking assemblage of pages: the feel and appearance of the story we hold in our hands has a huge influence on our reading expectations.
Not every writer is interested in these kinds of distinctions, of course, but Max Porter certainly is. His Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is the most exquisite little flight of a story captured between hardback covers, and its appearance has been crafted to show us that we are in for something unusual. This deeply moving book about death and its grief-stricken consolations – love and art – appears to be no more than a scattering of text, dialogue and poetry that lifts and settles on the page, the frailest sort of thing. Yet as we read on, we become aware that the way it has been put together is robust indeed.
For starters, there is the title, referring to a well-known poem by Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”, but not the poem by Dickinson used as an epigraph, “That Love is all there is; / Is all we know of Love;” – so setting out a project at once oblique, nuanced and intellectually playful. Then there’s the story itself, of a grieving writer and father of two young boys, who is coming to terms with the death of his wife while writing a book about Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis. Altogether, from the typography of the cover to the poet who is the subject of the protagonist’s writing, to the “Crow” who arrives in the middle of the night in “a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”, flying straight out of Hughes’s poetry into the role of caretaker for the family, amanuensis and analyst, there’s a glorious conceit at play here about how all the elements of a novel may come flocking together under the same publisher’s roof. So far, so Faber.
But the book is much more than the sum of its parts. Risking the rigours of its intellectual and aesthetic endeavour through extreme compression, Porter’s story becomes a profound meditation on the difficulty of writing about love and loss. The only way to do it is ... to begin. So, random memories, thoughts, scraps of conversations become the book. In the end, it’s Crow itself, that “thing with feathers”, that forces articulation, wresting narrative from out of a private place and putting it on to the page. Here is the bereaved husband:
Today I got back to work.
I managed half an hour and then
doodled.
I drew a picture of the funeral.
Everybody had crow faces, except
for the boys.
The Crow who comes to stay is part of the writer’s psyche, allowed full rein over his emotions, letting him act out his despair in abject self-loathing and stink so that the writer is then free to write: “Put. Me. Down, I croaked and my piss warmed / the cradle of his wing”. “I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death,” replies Crow, boasting, “I’ve written hundred of memoirs. It’s necessary for big names like me, I believe it’s called the imperative.”
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A kind of magic takes place – through metaphor, through make-believe, through words. And not only is the creature with its “One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle” part of the fairytale, the author scatters all kinds of other references to the simple pleasures of children’s fiction, from folk legends to nursery rhymes. Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins both are surely a hovering presence over Crow’s ministrations, as he cares for two little boys whose father, like parents in many stories, is curiously absent. “Dad is gone,” they say. “Crow is in the bathroom ... ” “ I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more,” Crow replies.
The story shifts between three points of view – “Dad”, “Boys”, “Crow” – and is arranged in three sections, each with its own music and character, veering from violent jeering and upset to drama, resolution and benediction. Sprinkling his wife’s ashes, the father hears in his sons’ voices “the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.”
Splitting an already slim volume three ways by three adds to the featherlight impression of the whole. We flit from one section to the next, as mighty themes are laid down – death and life, creativity and psychic terror – while humour and the domestic quotidian are never far away. In this, Porter’s tone and subject are reminiscent of recent poetry collections also addressing the loss of love, Christopher Reid’s A Scattering and Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap. But this book that looks and reads like a collection of poetry is very much a novel; a complex poetic grouping of ideas and images that is as easy to read as a children’s story. Finally, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shows us another way of thinking about the novel and its capabilities, taking us through a dark and emotionally fraught subject, one airy page after another, as though transported by wings. -




“In the Beginning was Scream”—according to Ted Hughes’ “Lineage”—followed hard upon by Crow. To enter the inchoate world, the eponymous corvid hero of Hughes’ famous suite of poems must pass an “Examination at the Womb-Door,” where he is faced with a riddle: “Who is stronger than death?” “Me, evidently,” Crow replies, and passes into the realm of life to wreak havoc upon it: retching up heads in attempting to pronounce the word “love,” attacking the sun, inexpertly nailing God and Man together, et cetera.
The same Crow introduces himself into Max Porter’s debut novel by ringing twice upon the doorbell. The sound barely registers with the young father who skulks inside his suburban house, numbed by the recent death of his wife. He is shocked, frightened, and embittered; suffocated by the petty social rituals of mourning (“the knotted-string dream of other people’s performances of woe”) when his grief seems to him world-ending. After dragging himself to the door, there is a “crack and a whoosh” and he is “smacked back, winded.” He smells a “sweet furry stink,” is swallowed by feathers, and when he dares to open his eyes is confronted by “one shiny jet-black eye as big as my face.” Crow, scourge of the universe, has come to give him a hug.
Thus Ted Hughes’ most celebrated creation is recast as unlikely metafictional Pooka to Porter’s stricken husband, a “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter,” summoned into being by his need. In a series of prose fragments narrated by Dad, his two sons (“The Boys”), and Crow, we learn about the intrusion into a family home of a mythological creature with supernatural powers whose first words are to promise that he “won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.”*
Porter plays the smallness of his domestic setting against Hughes’ propensity for the epic to wry comic effect. Hughes’ Crow is a trickster, a jester and breaker of taboos whose cunning allows him to transgress and overthrow God’s order. Porter’s Crow relishes this status beyond the bounds of good and evil—describing himself as “the rotten core, the Grünewald, the nails in the hands, the needle in the arm, the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot ever write poems, the slammed door, the in-principio-erat-verbum”—but is nonetheless content to color in zoo pictures with the boys. When Dad needs Crow to be the symbol of some deranged atavistic power, so that he can feel he is engaging with some elemental power and briefly transcend the narrow strictures of western civilisation, Crow obliges: “… krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cutout? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, … (I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he’s a little bit Stonehenge shamanic … whatever gets him through).”
Transplanting Crow from Hughes’ cracked mythopoeia into suburbia gives these men a grander register for their grief, an escape from the mundane realities of bereavement which so affront the felt magnitude of our love. It is hard to continue to “measure,” as Vladimir Nabokov does in Speak, Memory, “the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behaviour of nebulae” when the violent loss of that love seems to leave the world unmoved. As The Boys ask in the wake of their mother’s death, “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? … There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise.” Instead, they discover, “we stayed in our PJs and people visited and gave us stuff.” The miraculous appearance of Crow is a recognition by the universe of the cosmic implications of their loss.
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers extends its homage to Ted Hughes by characterizing Dad as a literary type engaged in writing a book on the poet. Hughes’ biography is a literary genre unto itself, and one that I (and I suspect Porter) would be reluctant to wade directly into. Yet it would be remiss to ignore the fact that Hughes composed the best part of the “Crow” poems in the six years between the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, and the death of his lover Assia Wevill by the same means in 1969 (she took his four-year-old daughter with her). Dad is thus not only a student of Hughes but, as a recent widower and writer who spends his time in the company of Crow, an oblique study of him.
One of the boys relates how Dad idolized Hughes, pilgrimaging as a teenager to see his hero speak at Oxford. Shaking with fear, he stands up at the end of the talk to ask a question, but is cruelly put down by the moderator. His shame is redeemed when, on leaving, the poet approaches him to lay a fatherly hand on his shoulder. Now it is Hughes’ poetic creation that offers Dad succour. We might tenuously suggest that his relationship to literature has matured: that in youth we revere the writer’s personality, in adulthood his work. An extension of that principle might suggest that the most valuable literary criticism traces the legacy of an oeuvre upon its readers, rather than tracking backwards to the by-now past and incidental life of its writer. The work continues to exist and effect change in the world, though its writer doesn’t (a version of that homiletic, which isn’t to say untrue, saying about how the dead live on in the lives of their loved ones). By that measure, this is a valuable contribution to the literature on Hughes.
Dad might be said to have Crow on his mind, though to dispute whether Crow is merely a figment of his imagination (or a projection of his trauma, if you prefer) is beside the point. As Jimmy Stewart said in defense of the invisible rabbit standing six-foot-three-and-a-half-inches (“now let’s stick to the facts”) who accompanied him on his various drinking binges in the 1950 film Harvey: “you see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.” Further to this common-sense rejoinder is the fact that Crow belongs to the corpus of living literature, which Flann O’Brien describes in At Swim-Two-Birds as a “limbo from which discerning authors [should] draw their characters as required,” and whose members are more real to the community of writers and readers around the world than any number of historical figures or religious zealots. Crow now belongs to what Larkin once accused lesser poets (including Hughes) of raiding, the “myth kitty” that provides us with exemplars on how to manage such all-too-human circumstances as grief, war, ecological catastrophe, and death.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers is ultimately a fractured, elegiac expression of that faith in art and literature. “Many people said, ‘You need time,’ when what I needed was Shakespeare, Ibn ‘Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf.” Crow, whether the literary symbol described in Hughes’ book or the hulking corvid that knocks on the door, helps Porter’s emotionally disordered men to connect with themes beyond the grief that has suffused their lives. Art is figured here as a means of helping us to transcend our circumstances. This is the ambition of both Porter’s (superficially modest) and Hughes’ (vastly immodest) literary projects, albeit that they differ in where that revelation might be found and of what it might consist. Towards the end of the book, one of The Boys relates a moment in which joy reentered their lives: “‘Dad said, ‘We can never think too much about how important Picasso is,’ and my brother said, ‘Wankerama Dad!’ and Dad was nearly sick from laughing.” Art—in Porter’s witty, sensitive, outlandish expression of it—does not so much transport us to another world as alert us to the extraordinary beauty of our own.

* In a 1994 letter to Terry Gifford cited in Sam Solnick’s Poetry and the Anthropocene, Ted Hughes draws attention to Carl Gustav Jung’s description of his therapy as a “way of putting the human being back in contact with the primitive human animal.” - Ben Eastham


Ted Hughes wrote his Crow poems in the years after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, whom he had left for another woman. Although they were intended as part of an epic mythic cycle, never completed, it's hard not to read them as expressions of grief, enraged stabs of revenge at a thankless world.
Now Hughes's wicked and omnivorous protagonist has been revived by Max Porter for this thrillingly various book, which in 114 pages passes itself off as essay, poem, fairy tale, lit crit both parodic and real, and putative memoir. I say putative, because although the premise – a young widowed father left to care for his two boys – is never linked to Porter's own life, the question of its trueness-to-life seems to hover ambiguously over the pages, tempting the reader to curious thoughts. It seems ghoulish to demand further details, not to mention critically crass. Is the book nicer if it's “true”? Is it better if it's not? Go take a hike.
The family's narrative of disaster and recovery is shared out between the Dad, the Boys and Crow in short named sections, and begins with the gatecrashing entrance of Hughes's black-feathered trickster-scavenger-philosopher into their silent, aching house, to act as protector, baby-sitter, therapist and goad. Crow himself speaks in a manic irrational rush: “Two-bed upstairs flat, split-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.”
Too much of this would be wearying and self-defeating, but Porter's book is beautifully paced, with plenty of white space, and frequent switches in tone and rhythm; it is funny when it doesn't need to be, moving when it does.
Though Hughes is there all through it – and actually present in one much-rehearsed family anecdote that you'll want so much to be taken from life – the writer who sprang most to mind as I read it was Ali Smith.
Like her, Porter has the language-sense to know how to use simple words to get at the toughest of subjects. Like her, he knows how to be playful and serious at once. A well-intentioned family friend who suggests to Dad the importance of “moving on” gets this: “Oh, I said, we move. WE F**KING HURTLE THROUGH SPACE LIKE THREE MAGNIFICENT BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS, thank you, Geoffrey, and send my love to Jean.” Meanwhile, the boys are there to explore their new motherless life through odd, esoteric games, and to throw Dad into relief: “We had to take the piss out of him as hard we possibly could. We were convinced that it was what our Mum would have wanted.”
Grief is, of course, an evergreen theme for literature, though it seems particularly popular, if that's the term, over the past few years. But the point about grief as a subject is that it forces a writer to be good, to find new ways of saying the same old thing, for you would not want to dishonour the dead, or offend the bereaved, with something substandard or derivative, would you? This book is neither of those things. It's a blast and a breeze and, strangely, a delight. - Jonathan Gibbs


In 1998, Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, a book of poems addressed, with only two exceptions, to Sylvia Plath, who had committed suicide over 30 years earlier. In a letter to their son Nicholas, Hughes explained the decision to publish. “What I was needing to do, all those years,” he wrote, “was deal with what had happened to your mother and me. [...] I did find a way of dealing with it – not by writing about it directly, but dealing with the deep emotional tangle of it indirectly, through other symbols, which is the best and most natural way.”
Max Porter is an editor at Granta and Portobello Books; his slim, Guardian First Book Award-longlisted debut follows a bereaved father – and Hughes scholar – who deals with the death of his young wife through one of his hero’s signature symbols: Hughes’s violent, elemental Crow. The novella opens as his children (“small boys with remote-control cars and ink-stamp sets”) learn that “this was a new life and Dad was a different type of Dad now and we were different boys, we were brave new boys without a Mum”. Well-meaning neighbours drop by with endless lasagnes while Dad can barely hold it together, in a house that is now “a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers”.
Suddenly, with a hearty stench and a rustle of feathers, there’s a knock at the door: a huge bird lifts bleary-eyed Dad a foot off the ground and demands that he say hello. “I won’t leave,” intones Crow, “until you don’t need me any more.” It’s deeply comic and hopelessly sad.
There isn’t much plot; rather, this bizarre set-up is the springboard for a meditation, in vignettes, on grief, love and literature. It’s narrated in turns by three distinct voices: Dad, wistful and weary; Boys, both innocent and wise, fond of fighting and climbing trees; and Crow, earthy, uncivilised, with a penchant for picture books and a hard line on house rules, serving at once as babysitter, therapist and metafictional trope.
Porter’s rhythmic prose is balanced delicately between humour and poignancy, to catch the reader continually off guard. His language is playful, full of delicious compound adjectives, surprising similes, evocative assonance and onomatopoeia.
The novella’s form is chameleon, shifting between interior monologue, almost-poetry and play-like dialogue; one section is followed by a set of comprehension questions, while in others text repeats, subtly and meaningfully altered. Porter’s joyfully allusive technique celebrates such tinkering: just as he entered their household without warning, so Crow is a literary interloper, too, changing – even vandalising – past texts and making them new.
The epitaph is a poem by Emily Dickinson, a word on each line crossed out and replaced, in handwritten capitals, by the word “CROW”. Crow has even forged his own identity outside of his literary antecedent: this isn’t Hughes’s contrary, maverick creature, who squares up to God and watches on while civilisation implodes. Porter’s gruff Crow is a wonderful creation: incongruously maternal, haunted by bad dreams in which his deep-set violent streak escapes, his speech – which often descends into wild word association – teetering on the edge of joyful incoherence: “Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns”.
Motherless children being saved from adversity by a friendly animal is an ancient fairy-tale trope, and the narrative is full of elliptical fables, introduced by a refrain of “Once upon a time”. (There’s no wicked stepmother, though: bar a sweetly hilarious scene where bumbling Dad beds a Plath scholar he meets at a conference, the family remains a tight unit of three plus crow.)
In The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales allow children to combat their fears in symbolic terms, and the tales Crow and the Boys tell – psychological variations on reality – suffuse the healing process even further with literary truths. These fairy tales are couched beautifully – especially a gleeful one in which Crow beats up a “tabloid-despicable” shape-shifting demon – but for me, the most moving sections remain the straightest: Dad’s open-hearted outpouring of grief; the boys smashing up their father’s possessions in pure rage; their understated affection for Dad (“We had to take the p--- out of him as hard as we possibly could. We were convinced that it was what our Mum would have wanted. It was our best way of loving him, and thanking him”).
Funny and warm and real, this little book is one to linger on and savour. - Francesca Wade


Max Porter’s compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, in which a being that resembles Ted Hughes’s Crow appears to a bereaved husband and his sons (the father happens to be writing a critical book about Hughes), qualifies as a novel by the familiar logic of its not fitting any other category. It is rich in hints about the place, or non-place, of death in our lives. People used to die, now they have end-of-life issues. The single person to have contributed most to this change is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving, who came up with the idea of grief’s having five stages. Originally she was concerned with the subjectivity of the dying person, making the case (contrary to Wittgenstein’s claim) for death being an event in life. It wasn’t a philosophical position but a matter of practical nursing. One of her tasks, when she was working as a psychiatrist in America in the unenlightened 1960s, was to persuade medical students to interact properly with the dying, who in those days were generally segregated and neglected – left to get on with it. Death wasn’t considered an event in the lives of medical professionals, perhaps seen instead as an indictment of their competence or an act of disloyalty.
We go to our deaths asymptotically, never getting there because ‘we’ and ‘there’ can’t exist at the same moment, even in the case of those who have chosen to die, like the painter Keith Vaughan in 1977, who continued to write his journal after taking the overdose:
I am ready for death though I fear it. Of course the whole thing may not work and I shall wake up. I don’t really mind either way. Once the decision seems inevitable the courage needed was less than I thought. I don’t quite believe anything has happened though the bottle is empty. At the moment I feel very much alive. P.W. rang and asked me to dine with him tonight. But I had already made the decision though not started the action. I can’t believe I have committed suicide since nothing has happened. No big bang or cut wrists. 65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure I did some [at this point the words lapse into illegibility and stop].
The five-stages idea soon migrated from the dying to the bereaved, and further afield again, as culture, particularly American culture, began to favour the notion of identity being constructed on the basis of wounds. David Kessler, who was Kübler-Ross’s co-author on her last two books, proposes that the same stages are present in every experience of loss, not just death but divorce, moving house and changing jobs. From here it’s not much of a stretch to the Onion story published under the headline Man with Friend with Cancer ‘Going through a rough Time’:
Three months ago, Mark Sennis received the news that everyone dreads: Ben Murphy, a friend and coworker with whom he ‘occasionally went out to lunch’, had been diagnosed with cancer.
‘You never think you’re going to be the one,’ Sennis said. ‘At first, I remember thinking, “How can this be happening to me? What have I done to deserve to have a friend with cancer?”’…
‘People ask how I’m doing and I say: “I’m scared and I’m angry,” Sennis said. “Unless you’ve personally experienced the pain and hardship that comes with having a coworker you’re fairly close to get cancer, you wouldn’t understand.”’
It’s understandable that Kessler is enthusiastic about his famous mentor and the thanatological work on which they collaborated, but he gets a little carried away when he says, about the reception given to On Death and Dying, that it was ‘as if the event of death had not occurred’ before the book was published in 1969.
Emerson, writing his journal in January 1842 as a newly bereaved father, seems fully engaged with the event:
What he looked upon is better; what he looked not upon is insignificant. The morning of Friday, I woke at three o’clock, and every cock in every barnyard was shrilling with the most unnecessary noise. The sun went up the morning sky with all his light, but the landscape was dishonoured by this loss. For this boy, in whose remembrance I have both slept and awaked so oft, decorated for me the morning star, the evening cloud, how much more all the particulars of daily economy; for he had touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact and circumstance in the household, the hard coal and the soft coal which I put into my stove; the wood, of which he brought his little quota for grandmother’s fire; the hammer, the pincers and file he was so eager to use; the microscope, the magnet, the little globe, and every trinket and instrument in the study; the loads of gravel on the meadow, the nests in the hen-house, and many and many a little visit to the dog-house and to the barn. – For everything he had his own name and way of thinking, his own pronunciation and manner. And every word came mended from that tongue …
It seems as if I ought to call upon the winds to describe my boy, my fast receding boy, a child of so large and generous a nature that I cannot paint him by specialties, as I might another … He named the parts of the toy house he was always building by fancy names which had a good sound, as ‘the interspeglium’ and ‘the corigada’, which names, he told Margaret, ‘the children could not understand.’
If I go down to the bottom of the garden it seems as if some one had fallen into the brook.
How would you go about dividing Emerson’s grief into components? There seems to be no bargaining and no anger in this agony of perfect loss, and certainly no denial, though his mourning was still new. Waldo, aged five, had died of scarlet fever three days before. Emerson presumably didn’t need to be told that his grief was as unique as he was, though that’s the current reassurance offered by Kessler:
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is as unique as you are.
In some ways this seems only common sense, but it’s odd to have the celebrated stages stripped at this late date of their strong underlying suggestion of discreteness and direction (and what might those additional stages reported by people in grief consist of?).
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers insists on its status as a literary artefact from the title onwards, with that nod to Emily Dickinson, both homage and correction, since in her poem feathers accompany and denote hope. To be explicitly literary in this context is to be secondhand, insistently, even aggressively secondhand, and to disavow the raw subjectivity, unshaped by previous expression, that is the assumed precondition for the conveying of personal emotion – and this is only the first of a series of formal and tonal decisions, none of them obvious, that build up a jarring new harmony. The epigraph cites a different Dickinson poem (numbered 1765), crucial nouns from which, ‘Love’, ‘freight’, ‘groove’, have been replaced – visibly superimposed rather than simply substituted – with the word ‘Crow’. There’s no doubt that Hughes is the tutelary deity of this book, or the king to be slain in its sacred grove, and Crow its totem animal.    
Dickens had a raven called Grip, in fact a series of birds bearing that name, and was on friendly terms with Edgar Allan Poe, who had admired the depiction of the raven in Barnaby Rudge (also called Grip) and was pleased to learn he had a real-life model. Poe knew (at least this is Guy Davenport’s contention in ‘The Geography of the Imagination’) that the raven was the device figuring on the banner of Alaric the Visigoth, so that a raven settling on a bust of Athene, as it does in the poem – ‘Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door’ – is a highly compressed image for the overthrow of reason. (Athens surrendered to Alaric in 395.) Hughes’s Crow retains the connection with the genus Corvus and with death but mixes in characteristics from Loki, the trickster who sometimes helps the gods and sometimes acts against them. As taken over into Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Crow (his functions listed as ‘friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter’) has a little of the thanatologist about him, as well as a lot of the shaman.
The sensation of déjà vu or déjà lu is eerily reinforced by the image and typography on the cover of the book, which echoes though also contradicts the cover of the first edition of Hughes’s collection. Leonard Baskin’s 1970 image offered a distinctly full-frontal Crow, naked-seeming, with barely a suggestion of feathers, sporting something much more like a scrotum or stumpy genital than a cloaca, and supported by a pair of legs whose bulk would do credit to the beefiest emu; Eleanor Crow’s dark silhouette on Max Porter’s book (the designer surely self-selecting for the commission) is more muted and harmonious, with no delineation of an eye, not exactly comforting – beak open – but short on actual threat. The Crow of the text comes closer to the Hughesian archetype, smelling to human nostrils of decay, ‘a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast’. Crow has a nose of his own, and assesses the widower’s bouquet with a wine columnist’s precision and panache: ‘notes of rotten hedge, bluebottles’. His relationship to his victim/client has a number of strands, protective, predatory and even voluptuous: ‘I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him.’
Crow at one point retrieves the childhood memories of the dead woman, who is haunting not her family but (apparently this is something the dead do) her early life: ‘Playdates! Red Cross building, parquet floor, plimsolls. Brownies. Angel biscuits … Dance-offs. Fig Rolls. Patchwork for Beginners. Invisible ink … Trampolines/aniseed sweets/painted eggs. Pencil sharpenings? Magic Faraway, Robert the something, Robert the Rose Horse?’
The bereaved man is convinced by this performance, even marginally consoled:
‘Thank you Crow.’
‘All part of the service.’
‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’
‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math bomb motherfucker, and all that.’
‘He never called you a motherfucker.’
‘Lucky me.’
The apparition is somehow family-friendly, since the sons who have lost a mother also interact with Crow. The book starts with their finding black feathers on their beds, a discovery that makes them decide to sleep on the floor. This is characteristic of the dance Porter’s book does towards and away from various sets of convention, a sort of hesitation waltz or one-person tango.
The book presents mourning as another thing that doesn’t qualify as an event in life, or at least takes place in a different dimension, a parallel world of loss. There’s a single reference to the funeral, well attended, another to the dead woman’s family helping with the service and with expenses. There’s an explicit acknowledgment of Dad’s brother’s helpfulness, but after the initial flurry of connectedness none of these people plays a part in the life after the death. They might as well all have died too, for all the benefit of their livingness.
As the dead woman is first evoked, she is not so much a person as a sustainer of a set of categories or symbolic properties, metaphysical sensations: ‘Soft./Slight./Like light, like a child’s foot talcum-dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse, like seeds, like everything grained, plaited, linked or numbered, like everything nature-made and violent and quiet./It is all completely missing. Nothing patient now.’ ‘Very romantic, how we first met’ is a statement applied to Dad and Crow, not Dad and his dead wife. Only a little later are specifics given of how she lived: ‘She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus)./She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)./And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ These curtailed, interrupted, suspended activities correspond to a present tense that has been abruptly abolished.
Mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement. It’s no small thing to call on the brain to model an absence, and not everyone can do it. In the 2014 Horizon documentary Living with Autism, Sarah Hendrickx discusses the workings of her emotional life. She says: ‘I don’t miss people. I don’t have the emotion of missing somebody when they’re not there. I might prefer them to be with me – but I don’t think it’s the same emotion that I understand other people have, of missing people.’
She asks her boyfriend, Keith, who has the same condition: ‘Do you miss me, when I’m not there? I don’t think you do – I think we’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?’
He thinks he does miss her. ‘When I interact with others, yes, because the interaction I have with them is never as satisfying as the interaction I have with you.’
She’s not persuaded. ‘Is that “missing”? You’ve always said “I prefer it when you’re there” … I think “missing” involves abstract imagination. It involves some ability to picture another reality apart from the one you’re in at the moment. I don’t think either of us are particularly capable of doing that.’ So missing someone, of which mourning is the fullest version, may feel like an affliction, but it’s also a skill. It’s not something that follows automatically from the knowledge that there are other people in the world.
The short sections of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers are centred on ‘Dad’, ‘Crow’ or ‘Boys’. No names are supplied, and the brothers, though explicitly not twins, aren’t explored separately, or contrasted much by way of age difference (not specified). They’re only identified as bigger or smaller, ‘one’ or ‘the other’, functioning as a unit or a balance of opposites. It might make sense to suggest that the boys are sealed into brotherhood by the loss of their mother, but the book’s prevailing weather is as much anti-psychological as psychological. Though the boys are supposed to need ‘time’ in fact they need ‘washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows’. Meanwhile their father, also supposed to be in need of time, stands in need of ‘Shakespeare, Ibn ’Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf’.
Bereavement is hardly a game, but in a family there will always be a certain amount of acting-out, symbolic negotiations that have their own wayward logic. So one of the Boys atones for having lost a note his mother once left in his lunchbox by breaking the glass on Dad’s John Coltrane poster, and Dad understands. The book’s emotional landscape may be desolate but it is fully energised. The sections flit from parable to skit to list, with sudden swerves, so that an odd dark fable about fraternal conflict ends as an exam question: ‘Does the rural setting of the story change the way you engage with the characters?’ An extra layer of unpredictability is provided by the point of view, which is bounced from place to place. Dad’s rather anticlimactic encounter with his hero Ted Hughes is recounted by the boys, though it happened long before they were born (‘Our Dad was quiet and shifty and romantic and you could smoke indoors then’). When Crow decides to get in on the act at the Birds of Prey Flying Display, it’s the ‘plump ginger guide with a radio mic’ who steps in as narrator: ‘HOW ABOUT THAT! That, ladies and gentlemen, is a brave little bastard. That is a crow, SURFIN’ A BALD EAGLE!’  
What is surprising about the absence of specifics is how little they matter in this context, the crude markers of sincerity. It may be that mourning always has something abstract about it, for those not actually doing the mourning, the loss of a decorative tile, perhaps, but not a keystone suddenly gone missing. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is more a fantasy grammar of loss than a conventional narrative, as close to, say, A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes’s inventory of the rhetoric that underlies and also structures romantic feelings, as to the novelistic confrontation with slow-burning loss (‘I came to grief late in life’ are the opening words) of Paul Bailey’s Gabriel’s Lament.
There’s no mention in Porter’s book of those five stages, and the idea of ‘moving on’ from grief doesn’t get much of a look in. When friends (those unreal people, murmuring soothing advice into a smoking crater) propose the notion, the response emerges through a fixed grin. ‘Oh, I said, we move. WE FUCKING HURTLE THROUGH SPACE LIKE THREE MAGNIFICENT BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS, thank you, Geoffrey, and send my love to Jean.’ The ability to function at some level shouldn’t be confused with the acceptance posited as the final stage by the Kübler-Ross model. Emerson could hardly be more emotionally present in his journal entries for January 1842, in a way that makes his earlier comments on loss and making good (in ‘Compensation’, from the first series of his essays) seem callow: ‘the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life.’ But when he refers to the loss of Waldo in the essay ‘Experience’, from the second series, the break with the tone of the journals is absolute:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is … In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, – no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, – neither better nor worse.
In those two years Emerson seems to have unlearned a lot. The public sage has reconstituted himself, and the boy has not just receded but disappeared. He takes his sweetly pretentious interspeglium and corigada with him. There’s something almost wilfully horrible about Emerson’s choice of a mercantile register, a ledger of transactions with no column for the unquantifiables of lost intimacy and found pain. It’s as if he was consciously trivialising the depth of his sorrow and dismissing two people, the person who had brought him to it and the person it briefly made him become. Wasn’t he closer to wholeness when his loss was unbearable than in the confident lay-preaching before and after it?
*
The problem with a book about the impact of death, like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, is that closure isn’t something the bereaved can expect, but it’s a reasonable hope for readers. Death translated into a body of words is no longer death. The idea of progress in the grief-work keeps coming back. There’s a sort of final session of analysis between Crow and Dad, where they look back on how far they’ve come. ‘You’ll remember with some of my early work with you,’ Crow says, ‘that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery.’ It’s agreed between the species that grief is complex and changeable. ‘It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.’ Crow again – he’s doing most of the talking. Grief shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms. Such as? ‘Oh, feathers. Turds? Waves? Honeycomb? String? Intestines? Bones? Feathers, said that, cat-flaps, wait, no, wait, hats, maps, traps, books, rooks, creeks, peek in my beaks …’ Absurdism heads off solemnity just in time.
Yet the need for resolution never goes away. In the last section of the book the conventions start to be reinstated. Dad and the boys scatter the dead woman’s ashes, though there’s been no previous mention either of cremation as an event nor the urn (actually a tin) as an object. After the scornful dismissal by Dad of the idea of moving on, it turns out that narrative – and even quasi-narrative – has an atavistic need for resolution, however much the writer may try to resist it. This shift towards closure in the dying pages of the book is less like an atheist’s last-breath conversion to novelistic orthodoxy than a terminally ill patient’s weary concession, faced with family pressure, that the forms be followed if it makes everybody happy. A few hymns and a blessing, where’s the harm? Anything for a quiet death. But a rite of passage of some description seems to be a requirement in this context.
The other end of her dying, not the disposal of remains but their creation from a living body, is an event kept in the far background by Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, though Crow, in his curious channelling of both id and superego, raises the subject more than once in his conversations with Dad. Dad’s attitude is that ‘she was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.’ At first Crow holds back on the ‘sour bulletins’ about ‘the true one-hour dying of his wife’, then begins to press him a little. ‘This is the story of how your wife died … She banged her head.’ Dad refuses the approach, saying with some ambiguity: ‘Crow, really, it’s fine. I know. I don’t need to know.’ Only in his poetic leave-taking does Crow go into any detail: ‘Accident in the home./She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell,/Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.’
A death entirely without meaning – just one of those things, ‘total waste’, no farewell, no last words. Except that Crow steps back from this brink when he describes the corpse: ‘Lifeless cheek, lifeless shin, foot and toe. Wedding ring. Smile.’ A last expression, then, filling in for last words, and a dead body that continues to send messages to the living. When even an imaginary crow can’t abide by the logic of a meaningless death, it’s clear that the need to find significance at the moment life ends runs deep.
*
Famous last words need an audience. Someone must hear what is said, and must write it down – it would be embarrassing to admit that you weren’t certain of the phrasing. Someone needed to transcribe Keith Vaughan’s last words, and to decide at what point exactly they became illegible. The deathbed scene is a highly literary artefact, with editorial interventions both at the time and subsequently, when it is written down. Adam Phillips in Darwin’s Worms (1999) looks at the way Freud’s death is narrated in biographies by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. There are plenty of differences, but both biographers need to see Freud as ‘the master of self-mastery’. Jones in particular, flying in the face of all the psychoanalytic evidence, presents him as ‘a remarkably consistent, heroically unified subject’. But it’s not just cultural titans who are reshaped by those who witness their deaths. We seem to have a need to imagine dying as a plenary session of consciousness, and to forget that the boundary between life and death is porous, full of intermediate states and no-man’s-lands.
A letter to the Guardian from Rab MacWilliam, 6 October 2007:
Further to David McKie’s piece on famous last words, I remember reading about the last words of the US writer O. Henry. He was lying motionless on his deathbed and nobody around knew if he was still alive. ‘I know,’ said one of the group, ‘touch his feet – no one ever died with warm feet.’ O. Henry slowly raised his head from the pillow, commented ‘Joan of Arc did,’ and promptly expired.
The promptness of expiry is typical of the genre, eliding the gap of time between last words and last breath. It’s an exemplary piece of narrative, with the master of the short-story surprise ending providing one, off the cuff, for his own life. But it has nothing to do with O. Henry, whose actual (or alleged) last words are recorded in C. Alphonso Smith’s biography of 1916:
‘He was perfectly conscious until within two minutes of his death Sunday morning,’ said Doctor Hancock, ‘and knew that the end was approaching. I never saw a man pluckier in facing it or in bearing pain. Nothing appeared to worry him at the last.’ There was no pain now and just before sunrise he said with a smile to those about him [quoting a popular song of 1907]: ‘Turn up the lights; I don’t want to go home in the dark.’ He died as he had lived. His last words touched with a new beauty and with new hope the refrain of a concert-hall song, the catch-word of the street, the jest of the department store. He did not go home in the dark. The sunlight was upon his face when he passed.
This is also an elaborate piece of construction, but far less good a fit, with its slightly grating piety, for a writer of lightweight short stories. The Joan-of-Arc’s-feet story is better attested for Samuel Upham, a professor at Drew Theological Seminary, in whose life it fits less well, being jocular rather than professionally engaged with eternity. So a suitable transfer is brokered from the pastor to the wag. After all, the scenario of pluckiness, sunlight on face, redeemed prostitute keeping vigil, was a hard sell in the case of Henry, a hardened drinker whose wife had left him the previous year and who was succumbing to cirrhosis at the age of 47. Anecdotes know better, and swim upstream to more hospitable waters.       
Everything is tidied up, made flattering. You can announce more or less consistently across an illustrious career that your attitude to death is one of cringing terror and indignity, and still your deathbed will turn out to be a place of stoical reflection: ‘Larkin had died at 1.24 a.m., turning to the nurse who was with him, squeezing her hand, and saying faintly: “I am going to the inevitable.”’ Of course there are advantages to setting the bar low, with a previous insistence on cowardice making it relatively likely that you will outperform your dignity targets, but these particular dying words seem to have strayed from the Life of some eminent Victorian, in the period before Lytton Strachey made that category ridiculous in itself. It’s ripe for replacement by something more in keeping.
The fetish for last moments and last words corresponds in some rather downmarket way to the Ciceronian description of philosophy as learning how to die. Clearly there are cases (Christ, Socrates) where the construction of an exemplary death is indispensable. A Christ who died on the cross without speaking would fall below full human standing let alone divinity, and a Socrates who displayed less than the full range of his character, dropping the jokes and ironies as the hemlock cup came near, would leave no sort of legacy. But for most of us the crafting of ‘a good death’ is a grotesque aspiration.
Montaigne took the Ciceronian tag as the title of an essay, but his interpretation of it is typically undoctrinaire. Modern medicine has made near-death experiences relatively common, but Montaigne had the privilege of a dress rehearsal in 1569 or so, after a fall from a horse. He had been riding on a slow mount, so as to be able to think his own thoughts in an agreeable rhythm, when one of his servants, who was riding a more powerful animal, decided to see how fast it could go, like a rebellious teenager putting Dad’s Ferrari through its paces. He lost control and cannoned into the seigneur, who was thrown and lost consciousness. In the days that followed, Montaigne passed through a number of states of mind, none of them corresponding to his expectations of confronting mortality. He might easily have died, but if so he would have dropped off to death as people fall asleep, and all the mental preparation he had imposed on himself over the years would have gone for nothing.
Before the accident Montaigne had been gloomy almost on principle, but in later life he became much more cheerful. He had been at risk of sacrificing the prospect of a good life to the mirage of a good death. The person who did the dying was only atypically the same person who had prepared for death, and the two things needed to be considered separately, the good life and the good death (in which chance necessarily plays a part). Dying in this century is a different experience, since at least in the developed world we are likely to approach death along a corridor of lesser oblivions, leaving the feast not just dazed but consensually sozzled with everything that medical science can introduce into our bloodstreams. But the same principle holds true, even if the few bad moments at the end of the life envisioned by Montaigne can now be very many.
In fact the only person more or less required to have an old-fashioned ‘good death’ is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004. As Kessler puts it, ‘for some who idolised her, there was an electric anticipation that something amazing might happen around her death – that the death and dying expert would have an unsurpassed experience. I don’t know what their expectations were, whether it would be music from on high or mysterious rainbows appearing, but none of that happened. Her death was quite normal.’ That seems to misrepresent the curiosity of outsiders. It’s not an irrelevant question to ask if Kübler-Ross practised what she preached, any more than it would be to reassure yourself that Delia Smith doesn’t give her dinner guests food poisoning. It’s not like asking what her favourite film was – though this Kessler does tell us (it’s E.T.)
The scene as he paints it is resolutely soft-focus: ‘Elisabeth’s death included all the ordinary pleasures that she had so passionately advocated for over the years – her room with lots of flowers, a large picture window, loved ones, her grandkids and my kids playing at the foot of her bed. The ordinary nature of her death exemplified that the radical change she created had by then become a reality.’ After his piece appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, the magazine published a letter from Eugen Bannerman, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University, Ontario, drawing attention to a very different portrait of Kübler-Ross’s late life, in Paula Todd’s A Quiet Courage. Todd had interviewed Kübler-Ross in March 2002, hoping for material for her inspirational book about people who have thrived despite adversity. Instead of encountering a pool of reflective calm she found herself interviewing ‘one of the angriest, most difficult people I have ever met’. Kübler-Ross, who had suffered a series of strokes, was living in disorder, surrounded by ashtrays full of cigarette butts, dirty dishes, empty food containers. Her greeting was ‘Life is shit. Go away. Shit, shit, shit.’ Todd was as tactful as she knew how, saying how much Kübler-Ross’s work meant to the world, and how valuable her insights would be. ‘It’s all bullshit,’ she yelled, and reached out to hit Todd’s arm. ‘I give you a karate chop. Chop, chop, chop.’ Eventually Kübler-Ross agreed to talk to Todd as long as she cooked potatoes for her, and then made soup. She talked about the fifty ‘spirits’ who now lived in the house with her, the lingering souls of dead loved ones or strangers who kept her company. ‘She confides that she thinks God is angry with her, punishing her by keeping her on earth when she lacks the mobility to enjoy anything, especially the outdoors and her garden.’ Todd was instructed to prepare a cheese board before she left, ‘a good one’, and was rewarded with Kübler-Ross stretching out her index finger in farewell, saying ‘E.T., E.T.’ Her last words to Todd were: ‘Don’t live past seventy. It’s hell.’
As she put it in her 2001 book, Life Lessons, which Todd duly quotes: ‘So many people have told me how much they appreciate my stages on death and dying, of which anger is one. But now, so many people in my life disappeared when I became angry myself … It’s as if they loved my stages but didn’t like me being in one of them.’ That doesn’t quite seem to cover it. As Bannerman put it in his letter, ‘Kübler-Ross had entered the sixth and final stage of dying: anger at God for NOT letting her die. Not her books, patients or students, but her own experience of illness had brought her to this final stage. She could only rage against the “staying” of the light.’ It seems ominous that Kübler-Ross should be on better terms with death than with life, but on the whole this prickly, ornery person, the raging granny in the attic of the good-death movement, seems a preferable figure to the trader in vacuous serenity who in The Wheel of Life (1997) claimed that ‘as I pass from this world to the next, I know that heaven and hell is determined by the way people live their lives in the present’ and that ‘there is no problem that is not actually a gift.’ -  Adam Mars-Jones   


A dead parent, the interrogation of a literary inheritance, and over everything, a bird: Max Porter is apparently unafraid to step into massive shoes. Not just the colossal ones belonging to Ted Hughes, whose ‘Crow’ poems are the jumping-off point for this free-verse novella about a bereaved Hughes scholar visited by Hughes’s corvine manifestation, but also those of Helen Macdonald. H is for Hawk, her memoir of loss, writing, recovery and nature, drawing ingeniously on the life and work of T.H. White, covered this territory with ferocious honesty and eloquence. The comparison is impossible to avoid, and not kind to Porter.
That’s somewhat unfair, since Grief is the Thing with Feathers is fiction, and cannot compete with the rawness of real grief written down. But Porter has a good observing eye, and catches much of the strangeness of being at the centre of a personal cataclysm. ‘I braced myself for more kindness,’ says the widower who is the focus of the book, describing nicely the demands that subsidiary mourners inadvertently make of the devastated. There are also passages in the joint voice of his sons, which are less successful, achieving neither a specific childishness nor a generalising insight. Lines such as ‘there was no new language of crisis. We stayed in our PJs and people visited and gave us stuff’, incongruously put an adult vocabulary into the flat tones of juvenile shock, to no great gain.
There is also the voice of Crow, and this is where Porter’s project becomes unfortunately muddied. The conceit is that Crow was always real, a black and benevolent spirit drawn to grieving widowers, dispensing both mischief and care. Crow carps endearingly about the reputation Hughes has left him: ‘I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him [the widower]… Fine by me, whatever gets him through.’ But there is hypocrisy here: Porter draws power from Hughes’s work, while at the same time bowdlerising the source. There are images of violence in Porter’s work, but they are always rehabilitated into metaphor, and nothing to the bloody shock of, say, ‘Crow’s Account of Saint George’.
For Hughes, Crow was not a response to grief, but its harbinger. ‘I hope you haven’t had a year of such poor luck as I’ve had,’ he wrote to Leonard Baskin in 1969. ‘I’m half-inclined to suspect CROW.’ That ‘poor luck’ included the murder-suicide of his mistress Assia Wevill and their four-year-old daughter Shura, and this violence forced a hiatus in the Crow poems rather than initiating them. The kind of masculinity in Porter’s father-son relationships is sweeter than the femicidal one of Hughes’s Crow, where Mammy must be ‘split… like melon’; but it is a sweetness dishonestly bought, by refusing to confront the splendour and viciousness of the source text. The pity is that, when not under Hughes’s wing, Porter writes acutely on the labours of loss: ‘Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people,’ says the widower. If only this Crow had been less eager to travel so light. -








There are certain stories that seem to bear limitless retelling. Their reality already has the ring of myth. The marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is such a story – two poetic giants powerfully attracted and repelled like the poles of magnets; Plath’s suicide in the freezing winter of 1963; Hughes’s eternal punishment for her death, bound like Prometheus to the rock. All these things are visions, imagined versions of what went on in that marriage and after it, for the past is wholly vanished and can never be recovered.
So Max Porter, in his debut novel, comes sidelong at the story: creating a parallel world in which a father cares for his two small children after the death of his wife. It is told in three voices. “Dad” is an author struggling to finish the book he is writing (for a “scruffy, Manchester-based publisher”), Ted Hughes’s “Crow” on the Couch: a Wild Analysis. The “boys”, whose voices are not distinguished from each other, speak for childhood and the loss of childhood. The mother’s death has been sudden, a swift and terrible loss. She was there one day and gone the next, in the manner of one who commits suicide, although the cause of her death is never made quite plain. A sorrow, a mess. Into this comes the book’s third voice, Crow: anarchic, terrible, violent, careless.
Not only did Hughes’s story have the ring of myth; he was also a myth-maker, fascinated by the primal images and creatures that underlie all human imagination. His character Crow sprang up after the death of Plath, a raw voice, “unpoetic”, one that ­retains its power to shock. It’s a bold move on Porter’s part to attempt to answer, in a novel, a voice such as Crow’s. Porter’s Crow, at any rate, knows his archetypal nature. “I’m a template. I know that, he knows that. A myth to be slipped in. Slip up into.”
“Slip up into” – Porter understands how hard it is to slip into myth. It’s an acknowledgement that this attempt might not be successful. As its title (a riff not on Hughes but on Emily Dickinson, who also provides the book’s epigraph) tells us, grief is the subject of this book, the grief that Dad and the boys experience as they run up against the void that the mother’s death has left. And this is what is absent from the novel: any real sense of what the mother’s loss means to them. The novel’s fragmentary nature never allows for a depth of emotion. Glimpses of the physical are offered: “She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She won’t ever finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” Yet the sense of the lost wife, the lost mother, as a real woman, a real mother, is never made vivid.
“We pissed on the seat,” say the boys, in revealing what her loss allows. “We never shut drawers. We did those things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” But the sound of her voice, before her death, when she found that pissed-on seat, that un-shut drawer – there’s hardly any of that here. Perhaps that’s the point: she is gone. That’s the awful absence. She cannot any longer be seen or heard. But if you think that one of the tasks of fiction is to conjure a sense – in this case, that of loss – you won’t find that here.
And Crow? How could he be as wild or as striking as his progenitor, Hughes’s Crow? “Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns,” Porter’s Crow barks. It’s a brave flight but it’s too tempting simply to turn back to the original. Crow needs no other words but his own. However, it’s hard not to admire Porter for his engagement with those black plumes. Myths speak to us and we speak back. That’s how we know they are deep in us.
The novel sends the reader back to the black, terrible gleam of Hughes’s Crow:
Near the face, this hand, motionless.
Near the hand, this cup.
Crow blinked. He blinked. Nothing faded.
He stared at the evidence.
Nothing escaped him. (Nothing could escape.) - Erica Wagner


Some writers would content themselves with one linguistic form for a debut novel. But perhaps as a consequence of his day job as senior editor for Granta, Max Porter couldn’t restrict himself to a straightforward narrative. Instead, he chose none at all. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is billed as “part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief”. It is a cacophonous snapshot of the trauma felt by a family after the sudden death of their mother, told alternately by “Dad”, the “Boys” – and “Crow”. Porter’s conceit is to turn the emotion of grief into a black bird, who swoops into the bereaved family’s life in “a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”.
This deluge of sensation is typical of Porter’s description throughout the book, particularly in Crow’s sections. It is sometimes a slog to trawl through paragraphs in which Porter appears to have been unable to cut a single superfluous adjective. And having to break off continually to Google Ted Hughes doesn’t help. For the “crow as grief” conceit is not Porter’s invention. After Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Hughes stopped writing. Crow: From The Life and Songs of Crow, a collection of poetry composed 1966-69, was his means of working through his grief. Unfortunately Porter relies a little too much on the reader’s knowledge of this. “Fourteen months to finish the book for Parenthesis Press; Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis ... Parenthesis hope my book might appeal to everyone sick of Ted & Sylvia archaeology,” writes Dad. Suddenly, every abstract turn of phrase that had before simply alienated seems decipherable – given a good working knowledge of mid-20th century modernist/post-modernist poetry.
Then there’s that title. Those unversed in modernist poetry might presume it a line from Hughes’s Crow. In fact, it is a riff on a poem by Emily Dickinson, “Hope” is the thing with feathers. In Dickinson’s poem, hope in the form of a bird is omnipresent and self-sustaining. Porter’s appropriation of the metaphor darkens Dickinson’s positive little poem. Grief, once suffered, will never leave entirely – but it can gradually morph into something more bearable. It is just a pity that the guiding metaphor “Crow” is so obviously used to make this point: at worse an annoying distraction from an otherwise touchingly simple expression of human grief. - Frankie McCoy      


he Emily Dickinson–derived title and featherweight of this remarkable volume should alert you that it is more prose poem than novel, but no less capacious for that. A young woman has died suddenly, leaving two small sons and a devoted husband bereft in their London flat. Friends and family couldn’t be kinder, but father and children are too stunned to grieve.
The widower, “shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way,” feels “hung-empty.” The sons in their pj’s, “brave new boys without a Mum,” wonder, “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this?” In crashes a huge crow one night—“a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast”—to create both, and more.
Crow, who joins Dad and Boys in a trio of alternating voices in Max Porter’s one-of-a-kind debut, likes to, well, crow: “I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.” He is also a mythic figure out of the poetry of Ted Hughes, about whom Dad was trying to write when tragedy hit. In other words, the screechy trickster is a philosopher of death and rebirth. He keeps his charges, and this book, careening between mocking hilarity and heartbreaking sorrow, with pauses everywhere in between. Grief, the bird says and Porter brilliantly shows, is “the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic.” -


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all

It may seem perverse to reinterpret those sweet words of Emily Dickinson’s about hope into a reflection on bereavement, but Max Porter’s exceptional debut novel tweaks its poetic forebears – chiefly Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create an impressive hybrid response to sudden loss. It’s a strong contender on this year’s Guardian First Book Award longlist.
The novel is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys (sometimes singular and sometimes plural) and Crow. The father and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines often laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem than prose paragraphs. The closest comparison is with David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time (2014), written after the death of the Israeli author’s son, which similarly blends poetry, dramatic monologues and prose to make a whole new language for the unspeakable.
Like Poe’s raven or Churchill’s black dog (as brought to life by Rebecca Hunt in her debut novel, 2010’s Mr Chartwell), Crow is both a real creature who blows into Dad’s life a few days after his wife’s death and a symbol – a larger-than-life representation of grief. ‘In the middle, yours truly. A smack of black plumage and a stench of death. Ta-daa!’
In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.
Crow promises (or is that threatens?) Dad to stick around until he’s no longer needed. His voice is the soul of the book: witty, onomatopoeic and often macabre, with plays on words and repetition:
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar writing an essay about the poet’s profoundly odd and disturbing 1970 collection, Crow. Once, as a teenager, he even saw his hero give a poetry reading in Oxford. If you’ve read Crow, some of the language in Porter’s book will feel familiar (like Hughes’s line ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death’); while it’s not strictly necessary to have read the Hughes, you might like to have a copy around to read in tandem or afterwards.
There is not an awful lot of plot in this short book. Crow defends the nest from the worst demons of grief. In a metaphor made real, when Dad takes the Boys to a bird of prey display, they cheer on a crow as it successfully chases off a bald eagle. The boys fight a lot, and make up fairy tales about finding their mother. Sometimes they look back from a more or less functional adulthood:
We seem to take it in ten-year turns to be
defined by it, sizeable chunks of cracking
on, then great sink-holes of melancholy.

Same as anyone, really.
In general, though, this is not a book of events but one of emotion, and the best passages are achingly honest reflections on the finality of death, as when Dad runs through the relics his wife left behind:
She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).
She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).
And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.
I will stop finding her hairs.
I will stop hearing her breathing.
That litany of now-useless possessions is a poignant reminder of a presence only experienced in the novel as an absence. As the end approaches, people keep hinting to Dad about the necessity of ‘moving on’, and by trying out a new relationship and finally scattering his wife’s ashes he gets closer to the ever-mythical closure. The most powerful sign of his recovery, however, is that Crow decides it’s time for him to go:
Man    [You knew] I would be done grieving?
Bird    No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you’re still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Porter reveals that he was inspired by two things: his love of Ted Hughes’s poetry and the death of his father when he was six. The result is both homage and elegy, with a particularly beautiful, triumphant ending. It’s the sort of meditative book you could polish off in an hour or choose to linger over for days. Judging by the strength of this novella, Porter has great things ahead of him. - Rebecca Foster
                   
Ted Hughes’ Crow marked his return to poetry following the suicide of Sylvia Plath, a cataclysm that can be felt in that collection’s violent rupturing of form. Borne of his obsession with Hughes, Max Porter’s début appears at first to confront bereavement more directly. A woman has died suddenly. In their London flat, her husband and young sons cling to the disordered remnants of family life. We hear their voices in alternating passages: Dad is immersed in grief; the boys, profoundly hurt, orbiting a barely understood absence. Enter Crow, an ancient trickster of inscrutable motives (as he was for Hughes), and here a superbly voiced embodiment of natural ferocity. Porter has been daring in shaping this extraordinary book, but its force is in its almost unbearably proximate examination of loss. - Paraic O’Donnell


Like love, it’s hard to describe grief without having really known it. And even when someone describes their experiences with gusto, the sense that they don’t really ‘gets it’ remains. In contrast Max Porter is a rare wonder whose poetic characterisations in his debut novel show a deep understanding of human emotion.
Porter’s Grief Is A Thing With Feathers tells one family’s journey through grief in three first-person narratives; that of Dad, of The Boys, and of grief anthropomorphised as a crow who lives with them as they struggle to take stock of their new lives.
Through lyrical prose, the parties grapple with the idea of grief, as Crow visits the individuals in very different ways. The boys express confusion as they discover the black calling-card feathers of Crow on their pillows. By contrast, their father feels his spiteful, incessant clawing and despairs as the bird heartlessly mocks his sorrow.
Having worked as a Commissioning Editor at Portobello Books, taking care of Man Booker prize-winner Eleanor Catton, Porter sure has a lot to live up to with his first foray into novels. However he takes his influences – including Ted Hughes’ poetry collection Crow – and background and runs with it, creating a wonderfully rich scene throughout that feels as though you are peering through a neighbour’s window.
Porter adeptly examines the way we understand grief and deal with loss over time in a beautifully bittersweet manner through writing so natural that Dad’s grief feels startlingly personal – I cried throughout. However it is in Crow’s omniscience that his writing really succeeds, and though you often hate the unwanted visitor, his twisted support is understandable and strangely desired.
A stunning examination of mourning, this is a difficult yet compelling read that I am recommending to everyone. - Holly McKenzie


Could you say something about the – absolutely fundamental – relationship between your book and Ted Hughes’ work, Crow, which was written after a barren period following Sylvia Plath’s death, and which he described as an attempt to write what he called an epic folk-tale, a prose narrative with interspersed verses.
The fundamental relationship is critical admiration, and a consideration of what obsession can do. The father in the book is preoccupied with Crow to such an extent that it comes alive, and whether that is imaginary or real, the generative outcomes are the same. The Crow is not Hughes’ Crow, he is Dad’s, the Boys’, my own, any reader’s, and the bird itself, with all the literary, mythological, ornithological baggage. He is the literary subject once removed. I considered using something else. At one stage it was Telemachus. But really Crow kept on hopping about in my periphery and the complexities of Hughes and grief were too much to resist.
In your book the father character, a Ted Hughes scholar, has an idea for a complete works of Ted Hughes illustrated by Crow, ‘which would violate, illustrate and pollute Ted’s work’. How did your relationship to Ted Hughes and Crow change over the course of your writing?
Well originally I thought I might do exactly that, as a graphic novel. I did a graphic poem based on Beckett, as a practice run, and it took me ages and I didn’t like my drawings enough. I also assumed (probably correctly) that I would never get permission to fiddle about with Hughes’ poetry in that way. And then my desire to write a fable of my own, about childhood, about marriage, moved in with the Crow thoughts.
I didn’t read Crow before I started. I didn’t want his voice in my head. My Crow is gifted with hindsight, liberated from Hughes and able to enjoy that book being one of the roles he has played. To try and pastiche the ugliness and anti-poetic sound of Hughes’ Crow would have been fatal, I think. And the remembering, or misremembering as the case may be, seems to me to be the more interesting thing. The problematic effects of a book like that, the fear and shock and discomfort; those are the things I was keen to give the father character to fill the space in his broken life. But ultimately, once I committed to the three voices, the fun part was balancing and building and trying to control the pollution between voices and that had nothing to do with Hughes’ book. I suppose Crow has a Cameo role. There are in-jokes in there for Hughes fans, but I hope as one part of the triptych he doesn’t outweigh the others or alienate someone who hasn’t read Crow.
The Hughes I love is the Hughes of River, Moortown Diary, the letters. And I’m pleased to say I left all that alone. It’s a book about the reader of poems, not the poet. 
Grief was partly inspired by your own grief as well, following a meeting with a friend of your long-dead father. How did that meeting provide the impetus for this novel?
Well, it reminded me (and shamed me for needing reminding) that there are very many truths or un-truths at work in any story. It got me thinking about responsibility, parenting and storytelling, and I suddenly saw quite clearly what it was that this Crow character would be doing for the family. The therapeutic role he could play, but also the fluidity of form and self-appraisal that he could inspire within the unit. I also just thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to write that book.’
Do you feel very exposed as an editor bringing out your own book?
Yes, at times. Less as real readers (by which I mean people outside publishing) have started to find it. I considered using a pseudonym, but someone rightly pointed out the unnecessary gamesmanship and fearful motivation of that. I didn’t think about publishing it while I was writing it, and I cleared all traces of work from the desk I wrote it at. It was my private pleasure. I think the length and the form protect me from feeling too exposed. It’s clearly not an attempt to move in on my author’s territory! Most people that know me, and have known me since I was a bookseller, probably guessed that I’d eventually get my shit together and write the prose/poetry hybrid that I’ve been banging on about for years. My authors seem to know me (dare I say it, like me) for who I am, which has helped. Life is short and we must stand up straight and do the things we can do. He says, hunched over, hiding, in the corner of his own book launch.
I think it’s made me a more empathetic editor. Which is good.
How easy was it to find the form, did you have to experiment with different ways of telling your story?
Once I had the three voices, and decided on Crow’s hinge mechanism of trauma and care, I was set. I fiddled a lot. I had a bit more Mum, I had some more fairytale sections. I had the boys playing with their voices a bit more. I also had some more pure prose in there from the father character, but it somehow violated the balance, so I stripped it out. The editing process was mainly playing with the volume of different bits.
You’ve adapted the words of Emily Dickinson, in which hope is the thing with feathers. There is much grief here, but there are also glimmers of hope aren’t there?
Absolutely, that’s why I use it. That decision began with Hughes too, actually. His consideration of Dickinson’s darkness, the unnameable third space, or third ‘thing’. As Helen Vendler points out, Dickinson’s THING means at least seven things. But yes, the basic offering is that grief is many things, perching in the soul, light and dark, unfixed, moving, proportioned to the life. Dickinson is the permission-giver. Again and again.
How long did it take you write to the book and how did you cope with the switch between everyday life and the demands of your own young family and what must have been a very intense period in your grief-laden invented world?
Honestly, some parts of it are a decade old. I wrote that story of the brothers in the wood when I was a student, when I was obsessed with seeing a deer in the forest. But I had a good little routine for the 3 or 4 months I was seriously writing it. Babies bathed and put to bed, meal cooked, my lovely wife happy with a book or a box-set, and then I would scurry into the little room where we dump stuff (it’s now a baby’s bedroom) and tap away. It was good. It was totally my own mental space and I was joyously locked in not thinking about who would read it or how long it would be or anything. I look forward to doing it again.
Was Faber, as Ted Hughes’ publisher, the first, perhaps only, home you’d have considered for your book?
Yes. My wife read it and said she had no idea what I should do with it. I sent it to my friend Hannah Westland who I trust on all things publishing and life. She said she loved it but had no idea what I could do with it. We talked about illustrations, or expanding it. It was incredibly helpful because I realised I wanted it to stay exactly as it was. I felt suddenly like I only had one option, and that option was to confess to Faber that it was done and see what they thought. It had some more, potentially riskier, stuff about Hughes in it at that stage. I remembered a conversation I’d had with Hannah Griffiths at Faber where she had admitted that she hadn’t got along so well with Crow. In my little notebook I had added her name to the list “things Crow is scared of”! So I sent it to Hannah. And from her very first response to this day Faber have treated it with remarkable care and affection, cherished it and understood it. They have kept it its own thing, while also letting it speak as a love letter to Hughes and Faber book design and many other things besides.  - www.foyles.co.uk/max-porter


Granta editor and Guardian first book award nominee Max Porter chats to PORT about taking risks in contemporary publishing


Sarah Crown: Max Porter: ‘The experience of the boys in the novel is based on my dad dying when I was six’

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