Grief is the Thing with Feathers: Book Review



First and foremost, I like to flick through a book’s pages to sense the amount of white space. This way, I can visually see what I’m heading into, whether it’s a dense novel, a collection of poetry,or, like Grief is the Thing with Feathers, something deliciously in-between. 

The character of Crow is in the territory of Poetry, whilst the narrative journey and voice of the Boys and Dad are prosaic. Alternating from one to the other, as Porter does, beautifully demonstrates the toxic persistence of an emotion. An abstract concept is given wings to pervade the air of their house, fluttering from room to room, or shitting in the corner.

Handling this book is handling the process of grief. On a basic level Crow is a metaphor for grief, squawking straight out of the Dad’s mind. Porter weaves intertexual layers through the Dad’s character who is stuck writing a book titled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis. This is where the book meets memoir as it alludes to Porter’s own appreciation of Hughes’ collection Crow, written after the death of Sylvia Plath. The title Grief is the Thing with Feathers refers to the Emily Dickinson poem ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers.’ Whether you’re aware of these details or not is irrelevant to the book’s potency and vividly fresh portrayal of the two most exhausted emotions in literature, love and loss.

Porter gives us a stunning observation of the additions and subtractions of grief. He forces us to reassess the obvious in what one gains from loss, what appears as the result of disappearance. Although the concept of a talking Crow by your bed is madly abstract, Porter grounds the experience of grieving into the every day. Mundane objects and every day language change with the loss, a subtraction seen in the finer details of lip balm that will never be finished, of ‘Daddy’s recently Mum-and-Dad’s bedroom’, of the Dad refusing ‘to loose a wife and gain chores.’ There’s a tragic humour in how Porter bluntly portrays what this loss means to the children, as the Boys state, ‘We stayed in our PJs and people visited us and gave us stuff. Holidays and school became the same.’ These details are not possible through mere speculation; they are rooted in the experience of the writer.  

The book presents a constant friction between noise and silence. Crow makes half of the book a raucous bombardment of sound where Porter has created a whole new language jam-packed with compounds, assonance and rhyme. A crafted nonsense with a humorous and yet claustrophobic rhythm, like having its feathers rammed down your throat. Meanwhile the Boys are left with the silent reality of being motherless, asking ‘Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this?’ Porter’s play with the sounds of grief is astonishing and transports the reader from inside a mind to a centreless house in the beat of a wing, or the turn of a page as the case is here. It is this playfulness both of his utter ownership of words, as well as the hybrid form of this book that exposes a searing truth and raw accuracy into a blind fumbling through the hole left by something that was once there. 

Max Porter's 111 pages of words has influenced my writing immensely and given me great courage as a writer willing the boundaries of literary forms to be broken, but also as a human who has been wrapped in those black wings. I implore you to read it. 




〰️ Andrew McMillan’s second poetry collection Playtime acts as a prequel, laying the sexual foundations to his debut collection Physical. McMillan unearths the initial stirrings of sexual desire as a schoolboy and fearlessly presents the reader with universal experiences rarely spoken of. The collection moves from naïve ‘first time’ moments of homosexual intimacy to social comments on modern masculinity through self-examination. McMillan’s writing is wincingly honest with a religious appreciation to the act of giving oneself to another. As in Physical, McMillan continues his signature lack of punctuation, which allows the reader to fall naturally into his rhythm and the stunning nakedness of each poem.