On Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Sebastian Sarti

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 2016. 128 pages. $14.00.

The Kübler-Ross Model outlines five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. By claiming the universality of the experience, the model becomes cliché, ripe for the type of mockery Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers produces with its own five stages—“Insanity. Pretentiousness. Denial. Indulgence. Nonsense.” In deriding such reductive structures, Porter’s debut suggests that no single model can encompass grief. To reach an honest depiction of grief, the novel fragments the emotion and reconfigures it into slivers specific not only to an individual but to a particular place and time as well, presenting it as something too momentous, personal, and abstract for a person to describe for himself, much less the world.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers has a potentially maudlin premise—a father and his twin sons mourn the death of his wife and their mother—but its peripatetic energy and lilting idiosyncrasies ensure the tragic never turns mawkish. From its opening pages, when it introduces a man-sized crow, named simply Crow, into the trio’s newly discombobulated world, the book plunges into its subject with an exploratory fervor, immersing us in a singular experience of sorrow.

Porter divides the book into short sections, often no more than a page or two. These intercalated sections, from the perspectives of the dad, the boys, and Crow, deny any overarching plot. Instead we’re given snippets, scenes, and senses that collate via an imagistic rather than argumentative logic. Not even built on description, Porter’s book is a series of half-formed depictions.

Of these various depictions, Crow’s staccato vignettes are particularly imagistic. They present him as a creature thoroughly alive to the sensory world who prefers representations to descriptions and who has a strong affinity for onomatopoeia, which he uses to communicate otherwise inexpressible sounds: “Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG.” “Knock. Knock. Knock.” “KONK. KONK. KONK.”

Leaving trails of feathers in his wake and having a “rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast,” and a posture that suggests “constant readiness for violence,” Crow exists as an overwhelmingly physical being. We can say Crow embodies grief, but grief—described as “fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar,” as “ripe, rich, and delicious,” and as much more—provides little definition. More definitely Crow is a compendium of allusions: to Poe’s Raven, to the book’s own title, to Dickinson’s Hope, and to her Love, and most plainly to Ted Hughes’s Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, which, written on the heels of Sylvia Plath’s death, borrowed heavily from the trickster mythologies that often depicted the bird as a wise but sly teacher.

Though rich in allusions, Crow only offers a taste of Porter’s proliferating allusions. Polyphemus is mentioned, as is Laocoön and his mother. Milton comes up. As does Donne. Ted Hughes, in the flesh, appears in their personal story. These allusions web the trio’s almost hermetic sorrow to the wider world, to the mythological and historic, less turning their story familiar or universal than layering it with further complications to dissect.

The allusions don’t help make sense of their despair. Like his wife’s possessions, which turn the house into a “physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers,” the allusions haunt Porter’s book and turn it into a mausoleum for past works that have flailed toward an understanding of anguish.

For his part, the dad clings to the specters. He discusses his wife’s ghost with Crow, who tells him, in his characteristically oblique manner, that she is not in the expected places. When the dad asks where she is, Crow says, “Playdates! Red Cross buildings, parquet floor, plimsolls. Brownies. Angel Biscuits . . . Trampolines/aniseed sweets/painted eggs.” Shouting this list of items, Crow makes his ramble accessible only to the dad, who recognizes these specifics and so knows they’re true.

Neighbors and friends, however, push for formalization and generalization. They bring lasagna and books and “little potted ready-meals,” while the dad, though grateful, wants only “Shakespeare, Ibn’ Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin’ Wolf.” He watches his sons play at birds and at lions, and he hears people contain these actions via a Kübler-Rossesque model of “coping mechanisms and normal childhood and time.”

Like the dad, the novel refuses such broad visions of sorrow. It hyperlocalizes its characters’ emotions and experiences, so though what they experience is called “grief,” the scramble of descriptors, often just a series of colliding sensations, strip the word of its common meanings. The book allows nothing to be unmoored from its specific world. When Crow says he kisses the sleeping dad, it cannot be left in broad language. They cannot be just kisses. He must say, “I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him. I flat-flutter Jenny Wren kissed him.”

Even the boys, whose collective voice has neither their father’s refinement nor Crow’s musicality, produce a specific world of mourning. Conditioned to expect the clichés of “fire engines,” “men in helmets,” and “horrible levels of noise” to signal a tragedy, they are surprised to find none of these accompany their mother’s passing. In the boys’ desire for clichés, Porter nods toward trite images, suggesting they could be possible comforts if only they were true. Since they’re not, the boys must take to telling short fables, waving at crows, lying about their mother’s death, and making a mess of the house in order to mark her absence.

Though amorphous, their grief is undeniably substantial and material. Crow is its most obvious manifestation, but many more figures embody it. Grief has a smell. It coats their house with a film. His missing his wife, the dad says, “is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city. . . .” He forms a mixed metaphor because there is nothing clean and logical about her absence. Of the incommensurable emotion, Crow only says, “It shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms . . . feathers. Turds? Waves? Honeycombs? String? Intestines? Bones? Feathers? . . . cat-flaps . . . hats, maps, traps, books, rooks, creeks. . .”

While their suffering calls for a “new and dramatic language of crisis,” Porter works within the parameters our language affords him, combatting its inadequacies to create a singular, fragmentary, and brilliant portrait of the oft-discussed emotion. It is a cluttered space, when discussing grief, but he sidesteps the clichés that would have turned his book saccharine. Impressively, he rarely uses irony or humor to undercut the enormity of the trio’s pain. The book’s abundant humor isn’t used to deflect their suffering or make light of the black emotions that swaddle them. Rather the humor reminds us that these people, though grieving, are undeniably, compellingly, ecstatically alive and so cannot help but encounter streaks of joy and humor and wonder, regardless of their despair.

Still, without that “language of crisis” we don’t arrive at a definition of grief. We’re only told that “it is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic,” but this doesn’t much explain anything. Unable to define grief, Porter’s debut, as much poetry and verse as it is fiction and prose, instead produces a melodic ode for this elusive experience that, even when suffocatingly present, cannot be grasped.

For all its emphasis on suffering and sorrow and despair, Porter’s book is no morose meditation. The death that ignites the story is not an ending but a catalyst, producing a surreal world in which a Crow rescues a family from hopelessness. In its title this incantatory debut tells us that Grief is the Thing with Feathers—OK, easy enough, but in the spirited wonder and ceaseless momentum animating each page, the novel goes on to complicate any notions we might have had—and it reminds us that grief, whatever else it may be, is a thing for the living.

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