“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

A book about grief, published by Faber, part-grafted onto the mythology of Ted Hughes “Crow” – I was very excited indeed when my copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers finally arrived. Since I first bought a copy of The Birthday Letters when I was about fifteen, desperately lost in the poetry section of a bookshop, trying to look knowledgeable and seizing an ice-blue collection I’d never heard of, I have loved Ted Hughes. I’ve spent hours poring over those poems; I wrote about him in my finals when everything else eluded me; and now, as I’m finally beginning to take a real interest in the natural world, his are the words which accompany me. Max Porter, though, is a next-level Hughes fan. I may have a picture postcard of Ted Hughes pinned to my wall at work, but he has taken Hughes’ “crow” and turned him into a puckish, violent, sentimental guardian in his debut novel, leading a young family through the first throes of hopeless grief and back into the light.

I’ve called it a novel, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. The slim volume is really a hybrid of prose fiction; poetry; fable; essay; and a kind of sparse, talking-head dialogue. Divided into three short sections, Grief is the Thing with Feathers begins just after the death of a young mother. Her husband is left in their London home with their two young sons, trying to write a book about Hughes whilst also coping with the agony of loss and the perversity of everyday life continuing around him. Into this chaos marches Crow – the embodiment of Hughes’ vision, a foul carrion bird determined to carry the family through their grief: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore, Crow promises. He is a brutal, hilarious, sentimental creation, nursing the boys through their sorrow like a perversion of Mary Poppins, and haunting their father like a kind of tender poltergeist.

Porter has made it clear that his book is inspired by rather than wedded to Hughes’ Crow, and you don’t need any familiarity with the poems to appreciate Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Perhaps it adds to the mythology, though to know that Crow was first conceived as Hughes’ visceral response to Plath’s suicide,  and that, like Porter’s Crow, he lives in the shades of death, fable, guilt and love, searching for something female. He gripped her hard so that life/ Should not drag her from that moment/ He wanted all future to cease….

The story is told from the three perspectives of “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow”, and their voices intertwine as the strange family navigate loss together. It is at once grounded in a shockingly funny, jet-black comedy, and also drifting in a kind of timeless semi-psychosis. Which makes it feel vital, and incredibly real – because grief is fragmenting and can make you lose your grip on reality, but it also lives in the every day. The practical shock that she won’t ever use (make-up turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus) and that She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm) is as shocking as the dream-like passage in which the boys sprint downstairs to open the door to a demon who feeds on grief, chambers of the baffled  baby hearts filled with yearning. And the comedy – mainly supplied by Crow – is perfect. Crow, we learn, likes history books, is composing a memoir, and has nightmares about singing like a blackbird. In one passage, as Dad tries to articulate the depth of his loss (concluding that The whole city is my missing her), Crow accuses him of sounding like a fridge magnet. It’s how, eventually, we recover – finding the ability to laugh at ourselves as we make ourselves ridiculous, even in the depths of despair.

It is essentially a cruel, violent process. No-one is spared here. Crow tells Dad that if his wife were a ghost, she certainly wouldn’t be wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, or mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood – no, she would have side-stepped her husband to find herself in the golden days of her childhood. In one fairy-tale re-imagining of their plight, the porcine King (Dad) tells his unruly Princes (the Boys) that their mother was certainly not the friend-of-a-friend I called Queen. The boys fight and bleed and mock their father, Crow weeps and is cooked alive. Grief is wild and uncontrollable. The family, though, are also resilient and gentle with one another, until hopelessness is replaced by long-term grief – which they will carry all their lives, but which is manageable, and will not stop them rediscovering joy. Finally, when Crow eventually takes his leave, you feel as though you can hear their mother’s voice, just for a moment, in his tender parting advice. Horror is eventually replaced by kindness, and the worst is behind them.

It’s an exquisite, agonising, wonderfully funny book, staring grief in the eye with an ego-less intelligence and humanity. There is even a cameo from Hughes himself. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.

Crow_(poem)Grief is the thing with feathers

“Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” by Roger Deakin

Reading Notes From Walnut Tree Farm led me, joyfully, to Rogue Male
– one of the best adventure novels I’ve read (and a great movie, too, with Peter O’Toole at his electrifying best). Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees has been similarly lavish in terms of new introductions. I had never heard of the artists David Nash or John Wolseley before, for instance, and am now desperate to see their work in person after Deakin’s tantalizing descriptions. (I may have to wait until Christmas to get my hands on one of the beautiful collaborative books John Wolseley has published in recent years – they’re a bit too dear for an impulse purchase, sadly). In the best way possible, it’s one of those books that makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been looking at all these years – I wanted to absorb every image, and know I will read it many times again, luxuriating in the detail.

Wildwood is divided into four sections (Roots, Sapwood, Driftwood and Heartwood) all of which meander through a series of lightly linked vignettes. The artery running through the book, of course, is bursting with trees. Structured rather like one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s adventures, Deakin takes you from the woodland of his childhood (where the finely named Biology Teacher, Barry Goater, first inspired his love of nature), through the rich, pagan, tree-bound traditions of the British Isles, and then onwards to Australia and Central Asia. Every page is overflowing with fascinating ecological facts, romantic tradition, natural beauty, and his sharply observant, delighted writing style. I imagine Deakin himself must have been one heck of a teacher.

With fluid ease, as if exploring the tributaries of a wooded river, he introduces the greenman of English folklore; artists such as Nash and Wolseley; poets like Ted Hughes; walnut-gatherers in Kyrgyzstan; and aboriginal fruit-pickers in Australia. His international cast, linked by a web of shared botanical knowledge and friendship, reveal the shared traditions of woodland. Each of them experience it in his or her own way – the journey through the Australian bush in search of fruit is very different to the image of a group of lepidopterists gathering in the Essex darkness to look for moths – but there are common themes. Time – freedom – knowledge – community – mythology.

And interspersing the descriptions of woodland with references to his artist friends ensures that you experience his travels in a very visual, and at times almost metaphysical way. In the Australian section, for example, I was very much reminded of the surreal visuals of the 1971 film “Walkabout”; a series of images punctuated by Wolseley’s charred, grey-brown visions of the bush. In the sections talking about the wild walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, it was as though I was reading about one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s dream-like experiences. The descriptions of the stone and wooden henges in Britain are rich with visual ritual – patinas of history layered over one another in rock and wood, as people commemorated the dead or celebrated the living for thousands of years. And in talking about David Nash’s wooden boulder, Deakin writes:

I sense that perhaps Wooden Boulder has become an alter-ego for Nash: it’s unfolding story part of his life, the restless thing itself an embodiment of his soul….There is a mythic feel to the story of Wooden Boulder. An artist turns a tree into a boulder, which miraculously floats and swims its way over many years towards the sea, where it rolls over like a seal and seems to disappear.

Sitting side by side with that poetic sense of the importance of woodland are very practical explanations. He talks about Nikolai Vavilov (I’ve just been learning about Vavilov centres as part of my environmental studies A-level, so that was exciting), the evolution of the domestic apple, the reason leaves change colour in autumn and the way forests marshal humidity. Which means that your mind is constantly stimulated – a breakdown of photosynthesis here, descriptions of grieving birds there…what a treasure trove.

“When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw”, “Come back, oh, come back. It was a song of heartbreak.”

The ready comparison which kept rolling about as I made my way through Wildwood (much like David Nash’s elusive wooden boulder) is to Ted Hughes’ poetry, which Deakin refers to on a number of occasions. Hughes is never just writing as a poet – his verse is layered with identities and visions. He is a naturalist; an anthropologist; a seer; a bird; and a lover. It gives his writing a sense of being suspended above time, and lends Hughes as poet a kind of eternal wisdom. Deakin feels the same, somehow. All of life is reflected in these pages. If anyone could convince you to immerse yourself in nature and its preservation, it’s Roger Deakin.

“Ted And I: A Brother’s Memoir” by Gerald Hughes

So we stood, alive in the river of light

     Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.” Ted Hughes

The artist Gerald Hughes is the poet Ted Hughes’ older brother, and his senior by ten years. I knew his name from “The Letters of Ted Hughes”, but I had never read anything about their relationship, or indeed any substantive description of Ted Hughes’ life “before Plath”. This, then, is Gerald’s description of his relationship with Ted; their shared childhood; his own time in the RAF during the second world war; and ultimately Ted’s premature death.

I approached the book with some trepidation. Every since stumbling across “The Birthday Letters” when I was sixteen, quite by chance and without knowing anything about the fraught context in which the collection had been written, Ted Hughes’ poetry has been a constant presence in my life. His unique voice, so infused as it is with mythology, growling energy, and scenes from a Britain which seems to be disappearing, was a formative discovery – as Seamus Heaney said, he was a “guardian spirit of the land and language”, and his poetry instilled in me an even greater love of words and of the ancient country I live in. It has therefore always been very important to me not to feel as though I am pawing over his remains, or sucking up any biographical detail that I can – sifting for clues as to Hughes and Plath’s relationship like some kind of cynical prospector. The assumptions some commentators have made, the condemnation a number of feminists heaped on Hughes for Plath’s death, and the mythologizing of their relationship is not something I wish to participate in. I am as interested in their personalities as I would be of any writer I hold dear, but they are poets, and people – not emblems in some kind of cruelly extrapolated narrative.

Climbing down from my soapbox, then, this is a jewel of a book. Even if the gentle, curious, sociable little boy Gerald was describing had not grown up to be one of the finest poet’s in the English language, this would be a beautiful evocation of a lost time. Rather like “A Fortnight in September”, Gerald Hughes draws a picture of an idyllic pre-war England. The two brothers spent most of their time roaming the Yorkshire countryside in search of wildlife and likely camping spots, and the Hughes family is shown to be close-knit and loving. Ted, we learn, followed Gerald everywhere, asking his big brother an endless stream of questions which forced the older boy to start reading in earnest in a bid to supply answers.

By the time Gerald left for war and as a result of his tutelage, Ted could shoot and fish, and was already employing his creative mind to fashion lifelike jaguars out of clay. They were incredibly close, and the separation caused first by Gerald’s service in the RAF, and later by his employment away from home, seems to have haunted Ted. It is strange that I should have read this so soon after “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” – a novel which represents sibling separation so effectively – as Gerald’s story shows very gently and with great love how difficult Ted found it to bear the lifelong distance from his brother.

    “”It had indeed been a long time since our previous visit and being together again had made him wish we were nearer – and naturally I shared those sentiments. “If you were,” he concluded, “I’m sure my life wouldn’t be half so silly.””

Gerald tells his story with an unshakable air of calm, and a kind of stoical restraint which is so recognizable of that special generation which lived through the war. When he returns from service in Africa, for example, having been in a war-zone for a number of years and a long way from any kind of normality, the only glimpse he gives us into how difficult it must have been to re-adjust is to say, “Indeed, I wondered how I was going to fit back into a family that was ticking over so comfortably.” He deals with the many sorrows in Ted’s life with the same moderation and kindness – he is never shocked or emotional, just eternally reliable and supportive. It is easy to see why Ted was so fond of him.

And in that, this also echoed “Unbroken” for me – Louis and Pete, Ted and Gerald – how important siblings are! Whether you are fan of Ted’s poetry (or indeed Gerald’s art), or whether you would simply enjoy a very English story of family love, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

    “This memoir, therefore, is a personal effort to take hold of a few of the past’s memorable moments, when we were joined with it, and part of it, and knew it, and my way of touching it, however briefly, before it, too, is lost.”

A photo I took when visiting Ted Hughes’ memorial stone on Dartmoor earlier this year.