Reviews

'Grief Is the Thing With Feathers' Pokes Around in Poetry's Carcass

In his first book, Max Porter pulls disparate voices and bangs them together to make something beautiful and scary.


Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 128 pages
Author: Max Porter
Price: $14.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-06
Amazon

Whenever I receive a book recommendation that comes with the claim that it ‘splits the difference between a poem and a novel’, something inside of me groans. I'm not inherently opposed to formal experimentation, but this description tends to be a euphemism for works that are puffed-up with self importance, endlessly pointing to themselves as ‘literary’ and ‘experimental’.

Max Porter’s debut book, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, is part novel, part poetry collection, and also neither of these things. What I can say for certain is that it's a fantastic book that tells the story of a father struggling to raise his two boys in the wake of their mother’s death when Crow arrives, offering either absolution or something altogether stranger and darker.

If capital-c Crow sounds like a familiar beast, that’s because he is explicitly the same Crow from Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, though Porter’s incarnation is quite a different beast. Hughes’ mythical vision of some apocalyptic, undying bird is gone and replaced by an altogether more human, more suburban evil, that cradles with one hand and chokes with the other. The book is divided into sections titled ‘Dad’, ‘Boys’, and ‘Crow’, and it's in the various voices of these three characters that Porter’s mix of styles finds its justification.

Porter has an amazing facility with voice. With the father and the boys he captures the tones and topics of middle-class, academically inclined suburbanites, and in Crow he captures its opposite. Porter’s Crow combines jet-black, onomatopoeic verbal drumming, stark crudeness, a sneer directed at the polite Englishness of the central family, and all of these elements are intermixed with great success. The ‘Crow’ sections of the book all deserve to be read aloud, for when given voice they transcend language and become a kind of sound poetry, with the actual meaning of the words becoming secondary to a horrible, mechanistic logic produced by the rhythm of Porter’s writing.

While the voice of Crow is particularly excellent, Porter doesn't slow down for the ‘Boys’ and ‘Dad’ sections. With the ‘Boys’, Porter captures almost perfectly how children speak; their stories are wild, mythical, playful tales that follow a kind of made-up-as-we-go-along logic, while also occasionally offering -- as childish rambling often will -- visions of an incomplete home life.

If ‘Boys’ and ‘Crow’ show us a flamboyant Porter, ‘Dad’ is drawn with a directness and realism that punctures much of Porter’s more overtly literary writing. It’s hard to overstate how much variation is packed into this small book, and to give descriptions of the sections as I have done does them something of a disservice, as Porter frequently blurs the boundaries between the sections in a way that makes the book endlessly interesting.

If this doesn't already sound like Porter has squeezed a great deal into such a slim volume, then consider that Grief also has a lot to say about the status of postmodernism in contemporary literature. Crow often speaks about his position as a character within the book -- noting at one point that in other versions of the same story he is ‘a doctor or a ghost’ -- and he is of course himself a literary reference (that most common and unapproachable of postmodern games), borrowed from Hughes’ Crow. Dad’s struggle with grief and Crow is also literature’s struggle, and is staged as a question that runs through the book as surely as mourning does: ‘Is grief better depicted as itself, simple and unadorned, or through a high-brow literary reference?’

Rather than providing any simple argument, Porter moves back and forth between a few answers all the way through Grief. Porter stages and develops a recent debate in contemporary fiction with this book, and manages to do so in a way that never feels overbearing, but is undeniably there for reader with an interest in postmodernism and whatever comes after it.

Porter’s range of references is not just limited to Hughes in this book. Familiar lines, ideas, and motifs in literature occur again and again, and become a means by which Porter raises questions about the nature of poetry itself. Poetry quite naturally abounds in the mouths and eyes of Dad and Crow, but it also appears, more surprisingly, in the ‘Boys’ sections of the book. One early section has the boys restaging Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ and, just like Hughes’ Crow, it appears changed in this book, and yet unmistakably the same.

Indeed, Porter pokes around in poetry’s carcass and explores its relationship with grief. With the father, poetry gives us a language through which grief can be expressed, but with the uneducated boys we see how poetry might be the natural response to grief, that it might actually be grief itself.

For all of its intertextuality and self-reflexiveness, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers remains a deeply humane book. It takes only an hour or two to read, and yet in this short time it manages to be both poetry and novel, and squeezes in fable, kitchen-sink realism, literary criticism, and stream of consciousness poetry. Porter’s debut is packed with contradiction and stylistic disagreement and yet, like some miraculous water that is somehow at once both turbid and crystal clear, it also manages to be wonderfully, deeply moving over the course of its 128 pages.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.