Photo by Lucy Dickens

ALL THE GRIEFS are here in Max Porter's Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Grief the joker. Grief the jerk. Grief the pal. Grief the failed obituary. Grief the Sisyphean effort at resurrection. Grief the guardian against states darker than grief. Grief the trickster. Grief the mirror.

In Porter's Grief, these facets (and many more) fuse to form a morbid corvid named Crow, who moves into a London flat with Dad and his Boys (two brothers, one voice) following the sudden death of the mother. Crow is a shared illusion who speaks in clackity-clack musical verse punctuated by bits of unobtrusive onomatopoeia. The bird interacts primarily with Dad but also occasionally with Boys. Dad's voice is dreary-humorous and straightforward, and the Boys often provide dreamlike backstories. From the perspectives of these three-ish characters, Porter constructs a narrative out of linked first-person poems that describe this family's attempt to work through the process of grieving.

I know this book already sounds fussy and overly literary! But it's not! It reads like a breeze. A somber breeze, sure, but you get right through it without really questioning the seemingly wild form. The book's short page count (114) helps out in this regard, but so do the tenderness and humor of the characters, and also the fact that the form just makes sense. Both grief and lyric poetry perform similar operations. Lyric poems transform the ordinary stuff of life in an extraordinary way. So does grief. After the death of a loved one, suddenly the sight of an unfinished jar of lip balm will precipitate a breakdown. So the idea that a book about grief would take the form of a series of linked lyric poems isn't really such a wild idea.

The particularities of the characters account for the form. Crow channels many literary allusions, but, considering the fact that Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, the most obvious link is the Crow from Hughes's mythic poetry series Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. These poems are a mega-bleak riff on and critique of the Christian creation story, which Hughes began writing directly after the death of his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath. The mythos is exposition-heavy, but basically an argument between god and his own nightmare produces Crow, who was supposed to be better than man but turned out not to be.

Dad openly discusses and bemoans the obviousness of his imaginary friend—of course the Hughes scholar with a wife who suddenly died would choose as his hallucinatory grief counselor the primary symbol of his subject's poetry—but Porter's choice to make the obvious choice offers his characters (and readers) a secular way of dealing with death.

While religious people reach for a Bible when bereaved, the characters in Grief, like many, don't appear to subscribe to any sort of faith. This apparent "lack" of faith isn't really a lack at all, but rather an opportunity for the characters to create their own language and traditions regarding the ruins of death. As the Boys say later in the novel: "We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we/wave at crows./It's not that weird." In the 1860s, Matthew Arnold entertained the idea that literature could replace religion as a tool to interrogate moral questions and explore the unknown. This story bears out that idea, showing that religion doesn't have a monopoly on mystery, that people don't need the Bible when they're going through hell.

I want to stress that this book about bummer stuff is not a total bummer. There's a ton of dry, grim British humor that pops up right when you need it to. We're just emerging from the specter of June gloom. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is ideal for the odd early summer cloudy day. There's enough dolor to match your doldrums, and enough levity to lift you up and out of them.


Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
by Max Porter
(Graywolf)