GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter is a novella of short fable-esque stories or poems that present as an essay on depression, it’s as messy as life and yet Kernel Morgan loved it and revelled in its uniqueness and passion. GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS is out now from the peeps at Allen & Unwin. You can obtain it from their website HERE or track it down online or in good bookstores. It appears the last few book reviews from Kernel Morgan have swayed towards the psyche, I find this intriguing and I also find this book intriguing in it’s comparisons to Poe’s THE RAVEN and Winston Churchill’s description of depression being a “black dog.”
*** Depression is a horrendous and a pain in the head to go through – at present there are 1 million people suffering depression in Australia and 2.3 million people suffering from anxiety – they are normally close friends. Of the things to note that I learned from suffering depression and anxiety is that 1) it is ONLY in your head and 2) you are only alone if you want to be and you need to avoid being alone in this – SEEK HELP – if you do not want to speak to family or friends then reach out – two fantastic places to contact in Australia are BEYOND BLUE or LIFELINE – there is NO SHAME in asking for help – living on this planet can be a real nightmare at times and well, as my friend Carrie always says “we are all in this together.”
Enjoy Morgan’s fine analysis……..all the best……..JK.
BY MORGAN BELL
I’ll be perfectly honest with you, GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS is a weird little book that is largely incomprehensible. So why such a high score? Because grief is incomprehensible, with emotions and irrationality coming in waves. I do err on the side of the experimental and like to reward brevity. More is not always better, and whilst formulaic is often more comfortable, there is great value in stepping out of your comfort zone. This book replicates the turbulence and disorientation of the grief over the loss of a loved one.
I will give you the synopsis straight off the dust jacket: “In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness. In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and the pain of loss gives way to memories, the little unit of three starts to heal.”
It is being marketed as a novella essay with a fable-esque elements, but really it is a little volume of poems. The title comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird, That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.
The content is very much riffing off Ted Hughes savage and graphic volume of poetry called CROW (theist bargaining), and Edgar Allen Poe’s poem THE RAVEN (the torment of wanting to at both times forget and remember a deceased lover).
Dad is a huge Ted Hughes fan. He has been working for fourteen months on a book called ‘Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis’ for the fictional Parenthesis Press, a scruffy Manchester-based publisher. Ted Hughes – a very successful poet in his own right – is often better known for his relationship with Sylvia Plath, his wife and mother of his children, and confessional poet who took her own life by sticking her head in a gas oven age 30. Dad’s book on Ted Hughes’ aims to examine Ted as an individual and not as one half of ‘Ted & Sylvia’.
Boys recall Dad (“tragically uncool” and “pro-Ted”) taking them to see Ted Hughes speak (when Ted was “grey and nearly dead”) at Oxford. Dad sat halfway to the front and waited for his hero. When it got to question time Dad asked a long, earnest, muddled question and was told it was more of an essay than a question and couldn’t be answered at that time. By the time he gets an answer from Ted he has forgotten the question. We follow Dad through to the publication of his book on Hughes and its critical reception, and to the eventual sprinkling of Mother’s ashes.
On the way to reaching these resolutions, many disturbing thoughts and stories are remembered, imagined, experienced, and jumbled up. Many recounted stories from the past end with statements like ‘this is only partially true’ or ‘this is a bad dream’ or ‘I’m either brother’. There are story fragments of kings and queens, of a rat catcher, and of the smashing a fish in a rockpool.
Dad remembers his first date with a girl named Hilary Gidding and the electric feel of their hands brushing when searching for a coin dropped down the back of cinema seats. Dad remembers the Jamaican midwife of his first Boy, and the Scottish midwife of his second Boy, connecting with a current day beach scene saying “we are fifty feet out to sea being chewed apart by sadness”. Dad draws a picture of Mother “unpicked, ribs splayed stretched like a xylophone with the dead birds playing tunes on her bones”.
Boys remember a wheezing grandmother on her death bed, offering them cigarettes, telling them that men are disappointing because they lack the strength and smarts of women, but women are less funny. Boys lie to party-goers about the nature of Mother’s death “She was beaten to death”. Boys purposely fleck toothpaste over the bathroom mirror “to miss her, to keep wanting her”. Boys smash things when losing a handwritten lunchbox note from Mother. Boys abuse and mock Dad because it seems to remind him of Mother.
Crow proposes a game where each of the two Boys must construct an artistic representation of their Mother – “not the most realistic, but the best, the truest” – and the winner will have their model of Mother brought to life to tuck them into bed. It forces Boys to remember her physical imperfections. Crow goes over the lines when colouring. Crow tells a story of man versus nature, ill-fitting boots, and brothers, then asks comprehension questions about whether the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief. On the face of it the character of Crow is a joint delusion experienced by Dad and Boys, but as Crow says himself “in other versions I am a doctor or a ghost … we can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God”.
I give this book kudos for being an appropriate length and format for the topic matter and style of content. It is 114 pages, divided into three parts – Part One: A Lick of Night | Part Two: Defence Of The Nest |Part Three: Permission To Leave. It has short alternating perspective chapters (Dad, Boys, Crow) that range from lyric verses and narrative poetry to screenplay format and stream-of-consciousness prose. There is heavy usage of onomatopoeia, making descriptions raw and brutal. Some passages are formed into lists or letters. It’s an organised mess, but so is life.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.