In this moment of violent despair they are visited by Crowantagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and babysitter. This self-described "sentimental bird," at once wild and tender, who "finds humans dull except in grief," threatens to stay with the wounded family until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and the pain of loss lessens with the balm of memories, Crow's efforts are rewarded and the little unit of three begins to recover: Dad resumes his book about the poet Ted Hughes; the boys get on with it, grow up.
Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter's extraordinary debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. Full of angular wit and profound truths, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a startlingly original and haunting debut by a significant new talent.
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Grief is the Thing With Feathers
By Max Porter
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2015 Max Porter
All rights reserved.
PART ONE A LICK OF NIGHT
There's a feather on my pillow.
Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.
It's a big, black feather.
Come and sleep in my bed.
There's a feather on your pillow too.
Let's leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.
Four or five days after she died, I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organisational fakery of my days. I felt hung-empty. The children were asleep. I drank. I smoked roll-ups out of the window. I felt that perhaps the main result of her being gone would be that I would permanently become this organiser, this list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum. Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. I was cold.
The friends and family who had been hanging around being kind had gone home to their own lives. When the children went to bed the flat had no meaning, nothing moved.
The doorbell rang and I braced myself for more kindness. Another lasagne, some books, a cuddle, some little potted ready-meals for the boys. Of course, I was becoming expert in the behaviour of orbiting grievers. Being at the epicentre grants a curiously anthropological awareness of everybody else; the overwhelmeds, the affectedly lackadaisicals, the nothing so fars, the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys. The people I still have no fucking idea who they were. I felt like Earth in that extraordinary picture of the planet surrounded by a thick belt of space junk. I felt it would be years before the knotted-string dream of other people's performances of woe for my dead wife would thin enough for me to see any black space again, and of course – needless to say – thoughts of this kind made me feel guilty. But, I thought, in support of myself, everything has changed, and she is gone and I can think what I like. She would approve, because we were always over-analytical, cynical, probably disloyal, puzzled. Dinner party post-mortem bitches with kind intentions. Hypocrites. Friends.
The bell rang again.
I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly hallway and opened the front door.
There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, 'What kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home tonight?' And then I thought, 'Frankly, what does it matter?' I thought, 'Please don't wake the boys, they need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own just as long as you don't wake the boys.'
I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.
And this is what he said:
I won't leave until you don't need me any more.
Put me down, I said.
Not until you say hello.
Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.
You're frightened. Just say hello.
Say it properly.
I lay back, resigned, and wished my wife wasn't dead. I wished I wasn't lying terrified in a giant bird embrace in my hallway. I wished I hadn't been obsessing about this thing just when the greatest tragedy of my life occurred. These were factual yearnings. It was bitterly wonderful. I had some clarity.
Hello Crow, I said. Good to finally meet you.
* * *
And he was gone.
For the first time in days I slept. I dreamt of afternoons in the forest.
Very romantic, how we first met. Badly behaved. Trip trap. Two-bed upstairs flat, spit-level, slight barbed-error, snuck in easy through the wall and up the attic bedroom to see those cotton boys silently sleeping, intoxicating hum of innocent children, lint, flack, gack-pack-nack, the whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief. Down the dead Mum stairs, plinkety plink curled claws whisper, down to Daddy's recently Mum-and-Dad's bedroom. I was Herne the hunter hornless, funt. Munt. Here he is. Out. Drunk-for white. I bent down over him and smelt his breath. Notes of rotten hedge, bluebottles. I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his un-brushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him. I flat-flutter Jenny Wren kissed him. His lint (toe-jam-rint) fuck-sacks sad and cosy, sagging, gently rising, then down, rising, then down, rising, then down, I was praying the breathing and the epidermis whispered 'flesh, aah, flesh, aah, flesh, aah', and it was beautiful for me, rising (just like me) then down (just like me) pan-shaped (just like me) it was any wonder the facts of my arrival under his sheets didn't lift him, stench, rot-yot-kot, wake up human (BIRD FEATHERS UP YER CRACK, DOWN YER COCK-EYE, IN YER MOUTH) but he slept and the bedroom was a mausoleum. He was an accidental remnant and I knew this was the best gig, a real bit of fun. I put my claw on his eyeball and weighed up gouging it out for fun or mercy. I plucked one jet feather from my hood and left it on his forehead, for, his, head.
For a souvenir, for a warning, for a lick of night in the morning.
For a little break in the mourning. I will give you something to think about, I whispered. He woke up and didn't see me against the blackness of his trauma.
ghoeeeze, he clacked.
Today I got back to work.
I managed half an hour then doodled.
I drew a picture of the funeral. Everybody had crow faces, except for the boys.
Look at that, look, did I or did I not, oi, look, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.
Tender opportunity. Never mind, every evening, crack of dawn, all change, all meat this, all meat that, separate the reek. Did I or did I not, ooh, tarmac macadam. Edible, sticky, bad camouflage.
Strap me to the mast or I'll bang her until my mathematics poke out her sorry, sorry, sorry, look! A severed hand, bramble, box of swans, box of stories, piss-arc, better off, must stop shaking, must stay still, mast stay still.
Oi, look, trust me. Did I or did I not faithfully deliver St Vincent to Lisbon. Safe trip, a bit of liver, sniff, sniff, fabric softener, leather, railings melted for bombs, bullets. Did I or did I not carry the hag across the river. Shit not, did not. Sing song blackbird automatic fuck-you-yellow, nasty, pretty boy, joke, creak, joke, crech, joke. Patience.
I could've bent him backwards over a chair and drip-fed him sour bulletins of the true one-hour dying of his wife. OTHER BIRDS WOULD HAVE, there's no goody baddy in the kingdom. Better get cracking.
I believe in the therapeutic method.
We were small boys with remote-control
cars and ink-stamp sets and we knew
something was up. We knew we weren't
getting straight answers when we asked
'where is Mum?' and we knew, even
before we were taken to our room and
told to sit on the bed, either side of Dad,
that something was changed. We guessed
and understood that this was a new life
and Dad was a different type of Dad now
and we were different boys, we were brave
new boys without a Mum. So when he
told us what had happened I don't know
what my brother was thinking but I was
Where are the fire engines? Where is the
noise and clamour of an event like this?
Where are the strangers going out of their
way to help, screaming, flinging bits of
emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment
at us to try and settle us and save us?
There should be men in helmets speaking
a new and dramatic language of crisis.
There should be horrible levels of noise,
completely foreign and inappropriate for
our cosy London flat.
There were no crowds and no uniformed
strangers and there was no new language
of crisis. We stayed in our PJs and people
visited and gave us stuff.
Holiday and school became the same.
In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can't, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.
I was, after all, 'the central bird ... at every extreme'. I'm a template. I know that, he knows that. A myth to be slipped in. Slip up into.
Inevitably I have to defend my position, because my position is sentimental. You don't know your origin tales, your biological truth (accident), your deaths (mosquito bites, mostly), your lives (denial, cheerfully). I am reluctant to discuss absurdity with any of you, who have persecuted us since time began. What good is a crow to a pack of grieving humans? A huddle.
So, yes. I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless, misdirect, misinform. Oi, stab it! A bloody load of time wasted.
But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity, splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.
I've drawn her unpicked, ribs splayed stretched like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones.
I've written hundreds of memoirs. It's necessary for big names like me. I believe it is called the imperative.
Once upon a time there was a blood wedding, and the crow son was angry that his mother was marrying again. So he flew away. He flew to find his father but all he found was carrion. He made friends with farmers (he delivered other birds to their guns), scientists (he performed tricks with tools that not even chimps could perform), and a poet or two. He thought, on several occasions, that he had found his Daddy's bones, and he wept and screamed at the hateful Goshawks 'here are the grey bones of my hooded Papa', but every time when he looked again it was some other corvid's corpse. So, tired of the fable lifestyle, sick of his omen celebrity, he hopped and flew and dragged himself home. The wedding party was still in full swing and the ancient grey crow rutting with his mother in the pile of trash at the foot of the stairs was none other than his father. The crow son screamed his hurt and confusion at his writhing parents. His father laughed. KONK. KONK. KONK. You've lived a long time and been a crow through and through, but you still can't take a joke.
Like light, like a child's foot talcum-dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse, like seeds, like everything grained, plaited, linked, or numbered, like everything nature- made and violent and quiet.
It is all completely missing. Nothing patient now.
My brother and I discovered a guppy fish in a
rock pool somewhere. We set about trying to
kill it. First we flung shingle into the pool but
the fish was fast. Then we tried large rocks and
boulders, but the fish would hide in the corners
beneath small crevices, or dart away. We were
human boys and the fish was just a fish, so
we devised a way to kill it. We filled the pool
with stones, blocking and damming the guppy
into a smaller and smaller area. Soon it circled
slowly and sadly in the tiny prison-pool and
we selected a perfectly sized stone. My brother
slammed it down over-arm and it popped and
splashed, rock on rock in water and delightedly
we lifted it out. Sure enough the fish was dead.
All the fun was sucked across the wide empty
beach. I felt sick and my brother swore. He
suggested flinging the lifeless guppy into the
sea but I couldn't bring myself to touch it so
we sprinted back across the beach and Dad
didn't look up from his book but said 'you've
done something bad I can tell'.
We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.
The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principal difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying 'OH NO YOU DON'T COCK-CHEEK'. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.
She won't ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).
She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).
And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.
I will stop finding her hairs.
I will stop hearing her breathing.
We found a fish in a pool and tried to kill
it but the pool was too big and the fish was
too quick so we dammed it and smashed it.
Later on, for ages, my brother did pictures
of the pool, of the fish, of us. Diagrams
explaining our choices. My brother always
uses diagrams to explain our choices, but
they aren't scientific, they're scrappy. My
brother likes to do scrappy badly drawn
diagrams even though he can actually
draw pretty well.
Head down, tot-along, looking.
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. 'LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAAH NOTES' (Collins Guide to Birds, p. 45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could learn a lot from me.
That's why I'm here.
There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow's natural self and his civilised self, between the scavenger and the philosopher, the goddess of complete being and the black stain, between Crow and his birdness. It seems to me to be the self-same exchange between mourning and living, then and now. I could learn a lot from him.
Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom,
where he often is because he likes the
acoustics. We are crouched by the closed
door listening. He is speaking very slowly,
very clearly. He sounds old-fashioned, like
Dad's vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas.
He says SUDDEN. He says TRAUMA. He
says Induced ... he coughs and spits and
tries again, INDUCED. He says SUDDEN
TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF
THE ALERT STATE.
Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune.
Gormin'ere, worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who's that lazurusting beans of my cut-out? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap, in my apse, in separate stocks for boiling, Enunciate it, rolling and turning it, sadget lips and burning it. Ooh, pressure! Must rehearse, must cuss less. The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha, better not.
(I do this, perform some unbound crow stuff, for him. I think he thinks he's a little bit Stonehenge shamanic, hearing the bird spirit. Fine by me, whatever gets him through.)
PART TWO DEFENCE OF THE NEST
Fourteen months to finish the book for Parenthesis Press: Ted Hughes' Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis.
I have a scruffy Manchester-based publisher who sends me encouraging notes and says he would understand if it was too much, now, to write a book. We are agreed the book will reflect the subject. It will hop about a bit. Parenthesis hope my book might appeal to everyone sick of Ted & Sylvia archaeology. It's not about them, we agree. We neglect to discuss what it should be about.
Every time I sit down and look at my notes Crow appears in my office. Sometimes slouched on the floor, resting on one wing ('Look! I'm the Venus of Corvino!'), sometimes patiently perched on my shoulder advising me ('Is that fair on Baskin, really?'). Most of the time he is happy to sit curled in the armchair quietly reading, wheezing. He flicks through picture books and poetry collections, tutting and sighing. He has no time for novels. He only picks up history books to label great men fuckwits or curse the church. He enjoys memoirs and was delighted to discover the book about a Scottish woman who adopted a rook.
Excerpted from Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. Copyright © 2015 Max Porter. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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