Grief is the Thing with Feathers

This is a shortish post on a short book, appropriate methinks for this stunted month. Having said that, one of my main writing jobs in February has been blogging away talking about Hull as City of Culture for New Writing North. The process was an interesting one: in contrast to these blogs which I treat as chatting to a group of friends around the kitchen table, with the commissioned NWN ones I felt it was more like being in the boardroom doing a presentation. I was on my best behaviour, though I did include the usual weak attempts at humour and cringy puns!

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an amazing…and here I’m stuck as to how to describe a work that defies categorisation. The poet Andrew McMillan ( check out his award winning collection Physical. Incidentally, he’s the son of Barnsley Bard, Ian ) cited it as one of his books of the year, terming it ‘part memoir, part novel, part experimental sound poem’ And maybe that puts you off – it did me. Stupidly I left it on the shelf unread for some time, wary of the whiff of arty fartyness – so here’s an example of the writing. A man has been widowed and left with two young boys:



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….

But there’s also humour and wit – comprehension questions follow one passage – debunking of sentimentality and a surreal element in the form of a talking crow (the man is a Ted Hughes scholar ) who barges into the house to help the family with their loss.

At first glance Porter’s book brings to mind Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, obvious points of comparison being the theme of grief and the avian metaphor. But actually it’s not comparing like to like: both books illustrate how it’s not content that distinguishes one work of literature from another but treatment. In the immortal words of comedian Frank Carsons, ‘ It’s the way I tell ‘em!’

You can read Grief is the Thing with Feathers in, at most, a couple of hours and when you think of how often in life you have spent that period of time in a frustrating / pointless work meeting or talking to boring people at a boring party then this has to be worth 120 minutes of your life!

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