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.”
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.
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.
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.