Porter, Max (2015), Grief is the thing with feathers, Faber and Faber
When you don’t have a lot of time to read for entertainment, you can get the impression that you can’t really be surprised anymore. At least this is how it feels to me. I pick up books that turn up in my usual circles of reading and recommendation. That’s why so many of my recent reviews start by referring back to other recent reviews. And then there’s books like this one. Mentioned on Twitter by a Bishop scholar I admire, I picked it up on a whim, without any expectations. There was a Dickinsonian title with a twist, and a pretty cover and that was it. I had never heard of Max Porter before or the book (nor have I looked him up in the meantime) . And yet – what a tremendous, what an enormous achievement this little book turned out to be. A strange, odd, moving novel(la) that moves between genres, evoking Ted Hughes implicitly and explicitly, an overwhelming book that deals with the grief of a husband that lost his wife, of two boys that lost their mother. I didn’t read any reviews or interviews regarding Porter’s book. I don’t know whether the fictional tale in its pages is powered in any way by real, extratextual grief, but I don’t really care. This book is intense and emotional. It makes me feel, palpably, its narrator’s grief, it’s a strangely effective way to make its readers feel the topsy-turvy world that a family finds itself in once the mother/wife suddenly dies. Routines and reality are upended, people have to relearn normal behavior. In order to achieve that, Max Porter introduces a mystical beast, Crow. It’s hard to think what else one might expect from Max Porter in the future because this is such a strange book, but this is excellent, from the first to the last page. Read it at your earliest convenience.
Crow isn’t just any crow. Porter’s protagonist is a Ted Hughes scholar (and, in modern parlance, a Hughes ‘fanboy’), at work on a book unenticingly called Ted Hughes’ “Crow” on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, and it’s immediately obvious that Crow, “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast” is the same mythical bird that populates some of Hughes’ best poems. This is interesting, as it opens inquiries into questions of autobiography, myth and literature. Ted Hughes remained interested in Crow even when he stopped writing poems about him, “pulled back onto the autobiographical level,” as he said in a late letter to Keith Sagar, and connected Crow to various myths and literary characters, among which King Lear provides a strange but interesting tangent for the book. But don’t let these remarks fool you. Grief is the thing with feathers is no mere academic exercise: its effect is powerful and immediate. The fact that it’s fiction may have helped it to bridge the gap between providing an aesthetically interesting text and a moving discussion of grief. I had recently started reading the memoirs of John W. Evans, a (sorta, kinda) acquaintance, who lost his wife in a terrible accident in the Romanian mountains and had to abandon her. It’s awful, and I decided not to review it here. Writing about grief is hard. Writing about various extreme emotions, yes, but grief is particularly strange. Evans chose to basically polish a bunch of essays he wrote for his therapist into book form. They deal with his guilt, with how wonderful his wife was, how unhappy he feels now. Except for the bizarreness of the accident itself, there’s nothing noteworthy about the writing or form of the book, and wading through a middle aged teacher’s self pity gets a bit tiring after a hundred pages. Self pity in exceptionally mediocre prose is just hard to take. The thing is, I’m sure I couldn’t do any better. It’s a genuinely difficult task. Even the great ones struggle. In his letters Hughes admits again and again to the overwhelming demands of writing with grief in mind.
The oddness of the story and its impactful nature may well be due to the non-autobiographical nature of the book. Not all books on grief are as flat as the aforementioned memoir. Books like Sharon Olds’ recently published collection Stag’s Leap, or Hughes’ own late work (for example Birthday Letters) can be quite effective, not to mention such extraordinary efforts as James Merrill’s late elegies to dead friends. But few people have the talent and wherewithal to write as powerfully and directly of grief without sacrificing some aesthetic appeal. Sharon Olds, discussing her book, described the process of its writing as “[j]ust being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.” It is a not entirely felicitous end point for the long but not lovely tradition of confessional poetry that started with careful and formally accomplished poets like Lowell, Berryman and Plath and ends today in such platitudes about writing “without distortion,” as if that was a way to frame any kind of utterance, much less poetry. It is, I think, these contemporary readings of autobiographical writing which for many scholars complicate the reading of mid-20th century ‘confessional’ poetry. A recent, very good study of Berryman spends a whole chapter clearing its author of the apparently heinous accusation of confessionalism. Max Porter’s decision to use Ted Hughes’ Crow as the mythology driving his book is interesting in this light, giving Hughes frequent opposition to confessionalism which he “despised.” At some point, during the late 1970s, I think, he asked Keith Sagar to write a book on him “as if nothing at all were known about me personally – as if my name was a pseudonym.” As Heather Clark points out, Hughes advocated the use of masks and “Crow may have been Hughes’ own ‘mask’.”
The Dad of the book and his two boys fill their days with clear and palpable detail – May Porter’s book is dedicated to the stink and rub and ordinariness of everyday life, refracted through the demands of grief and loss. The figure of the Dad doesn’t seem quite anchored in the daily life of the family. His disappearance becomes threat and nightmare to the boys, and meanwhile, Crow, of the dark world view, and the harsh speech, picks up the educational slack. His influence becomes most obvious in the way the mother’s death quicky turns into a kind of myth. It appears as if the boys and the book itself are working through what critic Jonathan Ellis (in an essay on Keats, Bishop and Hughes) described as the feeling of doing something illegal: “Talking to the dead as if they were alive feels ‘illegal’ because of the contemporary taboo that forbids prolonged mourning.” The boys’ parts of the narration are mostly told in hindsight. They are stories that are “mostly true” and telling the truth is a way to “be nice to Dad.” Meanwhile, the Dad does his own part in shaping truth – he is very selective about which parts of his wife’s life he wants to remember, and that selection does not include his wife’s death. Crow, in his primitive, feathered (ir)reality is a way to hold the family together, to keep enduring grief instead of breaking apart. The boys grow up to become dads themselves we learn and Crow becomes part of family mythology. Max Porter does an impressive job of translating grief both into this mythical, literary figure of Crow, and into minute, convincing details. Such as when Dad tells us about how her absence affects his life, his perception of his surroundings: “She won’t ever use (make-up, tumeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith’s novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” Meanwhile, the boys have their own way of making grief part of daily life: “We pissed on the seat. never shut drawers. We did those things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” Due to the compressed nature of his narrative, Porter picks events that are resonant with physicality and meaning, often to the point of overdetermining some chapters/poems in the book, such as when the boys admit that they have lied about their mother’s death to schoolmates. When Akhil Sharma had his protagonist lie about his brother’s accident, it was part of a larger theme of truthtelling, of assimilation, of storytelling as part of identity formation. With Max Porter, what we get is boys telling schoolmates that they killed their mother, a lie that is so rich in associations that it’s bound to overload the short, less than 10 sentences long chapter this lie is in.
A chapter that ends with their mother giving them permission. Because of course, the book isn’t rich enough without the dead mother appearing to all its characters (but unlike Crow, this is not a shared hallucination). To refer back to Ellis, what we see enacted is “the belief that the dead person remains here […] not as object, as ashes or body, but as active subject, living, speaking, writing.” So what we have is a book that is a haunted house in itself or rather – to speak with Emily Dickinson, “a house that tries to be haunted.” Maybe that’s a way to describe Porter’s method: he’s offering us a structure with multiple ways to fill it with artificial, spectral life. And his success: that he did it in such a sometimes heavy handed way without crushing the life within it, without making it a pale exercise. There is a way to read the whole book as a long, emotional comment on Ted Hughes’ work. Ted Hughes who lost his wife, Sylvia Plath, who left behind two children (though not two boys). Plath haunted the life of Hughes and her children, much like the absent mother in the book haunts the family here. There are lines here that correspond to Hughes, some poems appear in form and structure to refer to Hughes’ work, and the choice of Crow itself, as I said earlier, has significance in the context of grief and death. Even as outlandish a detail as hallucinations of the dead mother have echoes in Hughes. He wrote, for example, in anotebook entry, that he “[d]reamed as if all night Sylvia had been brought back to life.” It’s tempting, but not feasible to make a list of all the references, the sheer overwhelming Hughesness of the whole text. It adds an interesting richness – given the connection between Crow and the historical myth of King Lear, as detailed by Hughes himself, I feel that the father, in some of his guises and absences turns not into Lear but into Edgar, or rather Poor Tom.
The title – and the books epigraph, finally, are not taken from Hughes at all. The title is a play on Emily Dickinson’s most famous line (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) and the epigraph is simply a complete (short) poem. This is such an interesting choice, since Hughes has, from the 70s on, been the subject of attacks by readers of Plath and feminists in general, and he’s never been particularly gracious about it. Porter’s protagonist is not just a man, but one that lacks the capacity to be critical of Hughes. His book, when it appears, receives a write-up in the TLS, and it’s praised as a “delight to true fans of [Hughes and his poems].” So Dickinson is interesting here. Frequently, literary reception will read Hughes as cerebral and distant and Plath as emotional, following tired gendered lines. The divide between intellectual poetry and confessionalism is often an either/or situation, and female poets draw ire and censure whatever side of the divide they are said to fall on. Susan Howe’s inspired book on Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, did much, when it appeared in the 1980s to re-center the image of Dickinson as a poet who is direct and personal, but also highly intellectual. Contrary to the image of the spinster who writes introspective, hermetic poetry in her chamber, Howe showed conclusively that Dickinson was a brilliant reader first of all, of Dickens, Browning, Barrett, Brontë and others, and that her work answers earlier works of literature. Similarly, in an essay also from the 1980s, Nancy Walker points out how Dickinson used her letters to toy with a persona, she “consistently used the strategy of roles to explore her relation to the world. Her letters as well as her poems display a wide variety of tones and voices“ and “[i]n her letters, as in her poetry, writing is a form of art that can conceal, not reveal.”
This may all just be a coincidence, and Max Porter may have chosen the title for other reasons, just toying with the average reader’s knowledge of the Dickinson line to create intrigue, but Dickinson works as a reference for many of the techniques of voice and storytelling that Porter’s book rests on. Yet, ultimately, it’s not necessary to know Hughes to enjoy the book or to do some kind of literary speculation. The book works extremely well as a moving text about grief and loss. It’s not just the ultimate loss either. Passages like this one, describing a short lived relationship that Dad engages in
She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.
will resonate with people who put a long relationship or a marriage behind them, as well. And yet, for all the praise I have for the book, it’s clearly someone’s debut; it’s too much and too little all at once. It’s too smug and clever, and sometimes not intelligent enough. And I can see all these things while absolutely loving this book. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed this year and I’ve reviewed a lot of good books. I don’t know what’s next for Max Porter and his prodigious talent, but I’m looking forward to it. If he can improve on Grief is the thing with feathers, we are in for some great stuff.
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