The Everyman’s Crow: Grief is The Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

Graywolf Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-55597-741-2

by Lacey Pruitt-Thomas


It is a tiny book, no more than 114 pages, that proclaims itself a novel on its title page. Flipping through the textured pages, it appears more of a hybrid work—part poetry, part prose, a bit of script thrown in for flavor. The back cover extolls the story’s virtues with excerpts of reviews from The Atlantic, The Guardian, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal. The novel has won several “Best Book of 2015” awards.

But, the story—how is the story?

Porter’s work lives up to the hype. He leads his readers through a labyrinth, searching for escape from grief caused by the loss of someone close. Inspired by mythology and the oral traditions of storytelling, Porter weaves the stages of grief—sadness, despair, anger—into a narrative that surprises with humor along with expected sorrow. Porter declines to name his characters, rather labelling them simply “Dad,” “Boys,” and “Crow.” By doing this he extends the feel of an ancient fable to his story. The characters become images of the everyman; by offering them neither names nor faces, Porter allows them to take on the aspects of the readers’ imaginations. Although it could be a quick read, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is engrossing and thoughtful enough to induce meditation on the difficulties of learning how to continue to live with a hole in one’s heart, and continue to grapple with everyday life.

The story is told through three perspectives. After the sudden death of his wife, Dad—an academic scholar in the middle of writing a biography about Ted Hughes aptly titled, Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis—understandably is set adrift; not knowing how he will deal with the loss of wife, and raise two sons alone while earning a living. He mourns, “We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.”

We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.

The boys, who are very young when their mother dies, cope by teeter-tottering between reality and fantasy in their play and school, struggling to grasp what has happened to their world. This story follows them into adulthood, and they are still haunted by the mystic figure of the Crow that had appeared at their door, when they needed him the most:

“…Now my tiny son shouts ‘cra’ when he sees a

crow, because when I see a crow I shout


I tell tales of our family friend the crow.

My wife shakes her head. She thinks it’s

weird that I fondly remember family

holidays with an imaginary crow…”

Enter the Crow on a dark night by banging on the door and waking the father. Answering the door, he is met with “a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” Confronted with a crow the size of a human, the father is justifiably frightened when he is picked up and held close. The crow then says, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.” The crow becomes the conscience and confidant of the father, and the playmate and caregiver of the boys. Porter’s Crow evokes reminisces of Mary Poppins in the magic and guidance he gives to the grieving family.

a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.

Porter divides the story into three sections that signal the journey’s progression. From loss and lamentation in Part One, “A Lick of Night,” to finding that life does continue after a spouse and parent dies in Part Two, “Defence of the Nest,” and finally, the acceptance that the ache will remain, but one can move on in Part Three, “Permission to Leave.”

The truly fascinating thing about this piece is the connection that Porter has tied to Ted Hughes; both his life and his work. Similar to Dad’s project, is Hughes’ collection of poems, Crow: from the Life and Songs of the Crow, is an effort to deal with the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, which triggered a drought in his creativity for several years. According to Neil Roberts’ article, “Poetry by Ted Hughes,” Hughes believed that Crow was his masterpiece, but never completed it because the subsequent suicide of his mistress, Assia Wevill, withered his motivation for the project completely. Dad suffers from a similar desiccation; the Crow and the death of his wife intertwine with Hughes’ story of dead wife and mistress, and the Dad cannot escape it. The lines between reality and fantasy are blurring for Dad, as they did for Hughes as he created his Crow. Dad struggles to finish his book, saying, “Today I got back to work./ I managed half an hour then doodled.” When the father begins to date again, he sneaks a woman into his London flat and describes her as, “a Plath scholar I met at a symposium.” For Dad, his life, the story of Hughes, and the crow are all intertwined in a weirdly cosmic manner that nevertheless provides a safe haven for him and the boys to heal.

Porter sympathizes with the great sense of loss both Dad and Hughes suffer over the sudden, tragic deaths of their wives. The reader connects to this heartache through Porter’s use of lyrical and poignant language. Yet, the tone of the work is saved from becoming maudlin by infusions of sharp, spikey humor as well as descriptions of the mundane demands of the everyday living. Dad says, “Many people said ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.” Here the struggle to meet physical daily demands has nearly overwhelms Dad; he needs so many other things that “time” has been pushed to the back burner.

Many people said ‘You need time’, when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.

Rather than being a collection of poems and flash fiction based on a theme, the voices of Dad, Boys, and Crow weave each vignette into the fabric of a novel that through magic and lyrical language explore a difficult and complex issue with a grace borne on satin wings.

The Lady-Warrior of Geek Culture: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost), by Felicia Day

Touchstone, 2015. ISBN: 9781476785653

by Brittany Long


The gaming culture was once the sanctuary outcasts needed. But now, the “Age of the Geek” has brought about mainstream fascination and with that problems, such as sexism and public judgement. Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost), invites the readers to dive into the experience of being a female geek in the modern time. Using her witty charm and an endearing narrative, Day tells the story of how she broke down barriers in the long standing patriarchy of the geek culture. Not only does she reveal her own struggles to make her place in the world, but she motivates the reader to fight through whatever life quest they want to venture on. An actress, writer, gamer, and comedian, Felicia Day is a positive role model to women who want to become, or already are part of, the geek culture. As she says in her memoir: “If you enrich one other person’s life, it will be worth it.”

If you enrich one other person’s life, it will be worth it.

The memoir begins by Felicia Day introducing herself to the reader. For those who don’t know, Day is a modern day warrior maiden to those of us in the geek culture. After her initial success as an actress and producer, she went on to create a multimedia production company and YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Even myself, a longtime fan of Felicia Day, enjoyed reading the introduction. It was personable and entertaining, and it made you feel as if she were sitting right across from you. Day expertly retains this tone throughout the book thus deviating from the traditional mold of memoir by creating a more conversational narrative.

The memoir unfolds in a linear timeline, beginning with Day’s unusual childhood. From a young age, she was homeschooled in an unstructured way by her mother. In what she called a “free-for-all education,” Felicia learned all the subjects her peers were learning in school, but at her own pace. The one given rule was that she had to read every day, which she loved doing. It was through this required reading that she started to escape into imaginative worlds that she, later in life, would create.

Even with such an eccentric schooling, Felicia was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin at the age of sixteen where she double majored in mathematics and music performance. It was there that she started on her path to success. Though, as she points out, it was never just given; she had to earn it. This is a common theme throughout her memoir as she talks about her time after university as she worked hard to make it as an actress, and later a screenwriter.

Breaking barriers is what Felicia Day is all about; her determination to succeed in spite of odds is inspiring. She writes about the exhausting and stress-inducing nights she spent agonizing over storylines and dialogue for just one episode of her eventually popular web series The Guild. After completing the script, she attempted multiple times to get the series produced by an established production company, with no success. She was pitching a subculture which, at the time, did not capture mainstream media’s interest. Instead of backing down, Felicia decided to produce The Guild for the internet. This was an untapped treasure trove of an audience, one that would understand the quirky and nerdy characters and plot of the show essentially about gaming.

Felicia Day wrote and produced a web series at a time when YouTube had only just been created, but unlike a heroine in a fiction novel she didn’t complete her quest alone, instead she insists you have to be willing to accept help, and with that help, you can accomplish anything. And if her tale wasn’t motivation enough, Day offers up a small list of advice for anyone wishing to create something from nothing. The first piece of advice on her list, “Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING,” reflects the type of support system she had during The Guild’s creation process.

Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING

Perhaps the most inspiring chapter of her memoir come near the end. #Gamergate, aka “That Time When Men Got Emotional”, was a controversy in the geek subculture that started with a bad break up and turned into a hateful mess. During this time, women within the gaming industry and culture were under immense scrutiny and were being threatened. Day, an avid gamer and member of the geek culture, had remained surprisingly quiet on the matter for some time. Within her memoir, though, she openly admits, “I was afraid.” When she did speak up, calling out the ethical wrongdoing of online trolling and the proliferation of sexist comments, her personal information was leaked on the internet. This chapter was perhaps the most influential to me, a self-proclaimed lady-bro gamer, because of Day’s affirmations to be proud of whatever it is you love to do. Felicia leaves the reader, especially women, with a strong sense of empowerment. She states, “The very reason I felt guilty about NOT speaking up is WHY I should have spoken up in the first place.”

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) is a modern memoir that leaves you with positive, geek energy. Day celebrates her own weirdness, and even includes quirky visual embellishments that she created in Photoshop which brings an element of playfulness to the memoir. Because the context of her life’s story involves many geek-centered topics, she uses various nerdy idioms, but this doesn’t take away from the joy of reading as she always explains the meaning. Felicia Day has an enthusiasm that makes you feel proud to have strong interests and passions, regardless if they’re considered nerdy or not. She concludes her book by saying, “I hope all my copious oversharing encourages someone to stop, drop, and do something that’s always scared them. Create something they’ve always dreamt of.”

I hope all my copious oversharing encourages someone to stop, drop, and do something that’s always scared them. Create something they’ve always dreamt of.

Whether you consider yourself part of the geek culture or not, this is an uplifting and enjoyable read.

Impressions of a Life: The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

Back Bay Books, 1999. ISBN: 0316085251

by Katherine Michalak


In The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard presents a collection of linked essays: snapshots from her childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Raised in the Midwest in the 1950s and 1960s, she brings readers into a world where her mother and aunt fish together “in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake,” where Grandma bakes greasy peanut butter cookies and provides a bottomless sugar cube bowl, where multiple generations of women smoke as though nicotine is a prerequisite for leisure, and where four year-old boys’ entertainment is to “throw dirt and beat each other with sticks all day long.”

Out of this cultural soil, Beard matures into a woman who edits a physics journal for the University of Iowa, as well as who gains recognition for her own writing. She marries, further altering the textures of her life: in the fifth essay, “Coyotes”, she reveals this romantic union to be as empty as an Arizona night sky. Out of this void, she nonetheless finds a means for loving, and tends to an ailing collie with wholehearted dedication. Ultimately, she navigates loss, death, and divorce without losing sight of the lasting friendships which prove to be nourishing constants in her life.

The memoir is told more thematically than chronologically. An image of a “snake-thin” cheerleading coach—one of the “monsters” in Beard’s noisy, people-filled high school world—is juxtaposed with a lonely and retrospective 100-mile journey, when Beard is an adult, to visit her mother’s tombstone. In the essay, “Cousins,” she tells a story of her and her cousin almost hitting a deer one night while driving to a bar through rural Midwestern cornfields. “He could have wrecked my whole front end,” her cousin says, with the stoicism of a young woman whose father provides venison for dinner. Later in the essay, Beard jumps back in time to a childhood scene in which she and this same cousin are riding bicycles in a community parade full of cowboy hat-sporting children. Thus, we learn of the child Beard’s “good underpants without holes,” which she wears for the parade, within two pages of witnessing the young adult Beard blowing cigarette smoke in the face of a bar-goer who makes unwanted advances. This pair of chronologically separate but thematically unified anecdotes effectively conjures the cultural norms, strong family ties, and enduring friendships which influence Beard’s coming-of-age.

The primary theme, indicated by the title, is that of Beard’s relationships with men, which prove vacant. However, she engages this subject obliquely enough that one sometimes doubts its presence. After opening with a self-conscious childhood moment, in which she wishes she were more attractive in the presence of a group of boys, Beard splits off into memories of grandparents, cousins, and allergies; stories in which romance plays no part. Following these anecdotes, the essay, “Coyotes,” does address the theme, depicting her vacuous marital relationship; and the subsequent two essays underline her struggles with this man.

Next, in “Bulldozing the Baby,” she describes her dominance, as a three year-old, over an ugly doll named Hal, perhaps using this humorous story as a means of commenting on romantic attachment. “I [carry] Hal by the feet,” she says. “His shoes are warm from the sun and he smiles as I drag his face along through the grass and then—bump, bump—up the two steps and into the house.” What parallels we draw between this anecdote and romantic relationships in general, Beard leaves up to us.

His shoes are warm from the sun and he smiles as I drag his face along through the grass and then—bump, bump—up the two steps and into the house.

In the final essay, “The Boys of My Youth,” she weaves memories of early crushes into the telling of her divorce. Yet throughout the memoir, Beard emphasizes the sensory experience of her reality, rather than her attendant thought processes about men, which means we are spared the romance-obsession one might expect, judging from the book’s title. Thanks to this tasteful approach, the theme builds silently, without seeming heavy-handed.

Beard writes about herself without naval-gazing or spilling her soul: introverted and reserved are words which come to mind for this author’s voice. The Boys of My Youth is at variance from the confessional tales which once defined the genre of memoir, and although it offers a visceral impression of the author’s life, the collection is undeniably fragmented—enigmatic, even. It is as though Beard places her reader behind a cracked door: the view is intimate, but incomplete.

And yet, perhaps it is Beard’s cryptic doling out of memories which gives the book its tension: one feels as though each essay provides a clue in a scavenger hunt, enticing one forward in anticipation of some final prize, some “ah-hah” about her life—or even about life in general. In part, the brilliance of The Boys of My Youth lies in Beard’s ability to sustain this tension even while writing primarily about everyday events. One might argue that the most well-known essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which was originally published in the New Yorker and features a violent shooting, couldn’t be further from mundane. However, the tragedy’s placement in the second third of the collection—along with the fact that we don’t expect it, due to the prior essays’ lack of lead-ins—demands that Beard’s writing hook readers irrespective of this climactic event. In a literary environment saturated with accounts of trauma and violence, Beard proves that the simple details of one person’s life—even during times which lack sensational intrigue—can be rendered compelling and memorable.

While some readers might find The Boys of My Youth lacking in explicit emotion—Beard describes her history in a non-reflective, deadpan tone—this collection portrays greater depth than one might initially realize. By her very reserve, Beard proves that memoir is an art form capable of capturing unique human essence, even when that essence doesn’t gush or speak candidly for itself.

Like art photography, Beard’s intentionally framed, offset imagery leaves one with thought-provoking impressions which refuse to dissipate.


Breaking and Blossoming: A Review of Dan Beachy-Quick’s "Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs"

$11.95, 48 pages. Omnidawn Publishing, 2015.

by Anita Olivia Koester


Dan Beachy-Quick has always been interested in words as objects, and poems as works of art that communicate with other works of art. His chapbook, Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs, is no exception. Here that communication is internal-- seven poems communicate with one another through four forms-- the shield, the shard, the stitch, and the song.

The original seven poems assume the shapes of shields as they are each constructed of eight dense lines within a single stanza. The shields cover various themes-- poetry, memory, loss, God, death, love, nothingness/endings. In the opening poem, which is essentially about the act of writing poetry, Beachy-Quick tells the poem to--

Take root in the broken and bloom.

This is the central theme guiding this journey, as this chapbook is not only a book, but a form of passage. This poem also sets the initial tone of the book, there is blood, trouble, rubble and ruin, writing poetry is a bitter business and yet he rallies the poet to--

Mark it in bronze, poet. Grab the tool. Beat it.

In these closing words of the poem, we also hear the echo of the first word, “be”. As the poet must utilize violence to write the poem, but the poet should also “be… it”, as in, be the poem. The poem as a shield is an extension of the self, a way to protect the interior self from the exterior world. It is also an object that makes proclamations about where one’s loyalties lie.

The shield poems are constructed mainly of nouns and therefore have a kind of hardness to them. The second shield harbors many nouns-- sword, words, memory, cloud, bee, fragment, field, mower, seeds, shrouds, deeds, shadows, cords. Amongst all these nouns there is precious little breathing space within the poem, which exhibits the brutality of the connection between a poem’s words and the memories they strive to embody. A shield is typically adorned with a family crest, therefore the nouns chosen here can be considered symbols of what is important to the poet and to the poem. Consider the second shield--

“Sword words

Clash in the memory cloud.

Hectic bee amazed by the fragment

field the mower left uncut.

Shut it down, what only yields

Fragrant blades, lunatic

Seeds in downy shrouds. Lash

Deeds to shadows. Use these cords.”

The poem begins with words sharp as swords clashing within the one’s own memory, cutting down, or mowing down what was once a reality-- a field of grass. Here the poet is like the bee, bringing pollen from the memory to the paper in hopes that the words will fertilize, and the poem bloom. But there is a darker tone to this poem. The seeds are lunatics for wanting to grow into blades only to be cut down. And finally deeds are forced to become memories, so the cycle can repeat.

However the poem does not end here, the shield is only the first stage of the poem’s metamorphosis. Next, the shield will break into shards, and the resulting poem will be a fragmented erasure of the original shield. In the transformation, much is lost. The words have broken apart, within them there are letters that can be put to new use, but for now they lie exhausted on the page, unable to muster themselves into much meaning–

"wo    wo

                                                                          the                 cloud

                                                                 bee a    a


shut     down, wh           y

grant blades

                                                           see                      shroud . Lash

to    a      .Use"

It is up to the reader now to attempt to make sense of the words and to figure out how they connect, if they connect at all. “wo     wo” seems to be the sound the “cloud bee” makes as it buzzes around the field. As in the original poem there is a field of grass, and a bee buzzing around it, but the field is “shut down”, and the blades of grass seem to see their own impending death or mutilation in the shroud.

Beachy-Quick wants the reader to juxtapose the word shard with shroud, he wants us to hear the similarities in the words, as it is only the vowels that have altered, the framing of the word remains largely the same. Embedded in a ‘whole’ poem the reader probably would not have noticed how similar the words shard and shroud are, but in this scattering of words and letters we can become more familiar with the construction of the words themselves, something Beach-Quick has explored throughout his work. Since Whitman, grass has become a beloved symbol of the American poet to denote poetry itself. Here the glades have been used perhaps against their own will; the poem has been cut down, and is offered to us in a state of brokenness. The poet invites us to engage with that which is broken, to discover the shape and make use of fragments. This is why he ends the poem with the word use, as letters and fragmented words are the tools of the poet.

Out of this brokenness is born the stitch. The stitch is made up of words from the shards. These words are sutured back into meaning and wholeness. Many of the stitch poems are beautiful in themselves:

On love… no hinge… all home.
A tone… O moan… O poet.

The stitches also bring meaning to the shield poems, the poem that was originally about love becomes “we await you… you ark of rescue." Here love is a kind of rescue, a savior, but also a ship that protects one as it sails forward. Another example would be the poem about death which becomes, “O yes… you make it lack breath,” this unfortunately is exactly what death does to the body. The themes of the original poems are often distilled into the sutures, some more carefully than others. But there is still a final stage of metamorphosis for the poem, out of every suture blossoms a song.

Every letter and word in a stitch is used to build a song, the songs complete the journey of the poem as well as the journey of the poet, who started off as a literary soldier holding a paper shield. In antiquity, great battles were memorialized in song, and poetry and song were often one and the same. Beachy-Quick reinvigorates this tradition by having the poems’ transformations complete in song. The songs are the longest, most robust poems in the book-- their lines stretch out, their nouns and images are still strong and many are recycled form the original shield, but they are allowed more breath, more music, as well as verbs to move within.

The second shield which became the second shard, which then became the second stitch, completes within the second song, which begins, “The wars are everywhere, o even within”. The bee makes another appearance, though instead of drawing attention to the bee’s ability to pollinate, the poet focuses in on the bee’s stinger--

Even the heart,/ Keeps the sting sharp: art stings thought, thought stings art.

Because of the language lessons throughout this chapbook we quickly see how the word “art” is embedded in “heart”, the two words are immediately married, one cannot exist without the other, how can one love without art? How can one create art without using the heart? Beachy-Quick then inquires, “are there other ways to learn how to sing?”

In every song, no matter how celebratory, there remains the echo of a wail, in this chapbook the creation of poetry is pain-filled act, and yet the poet must use that pain to create something of value. Here again two similarly constructed words, sting and sing, go hand in hand. When all the wars are won and/or lost, when the dead are laid to rest, when the survivors have been given succor, what is left is something that lasts beyond defenses and offenses- poetry, art, and song.  And inside of that song are tucked the remnants of the journey, the song must “take root in the broken” in order to bloom.