Adam Mars-Jones at The London Review of Books:
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers insists on its status as a literary artefact from the title onwards, with that nod to Emily Dickinson, both homage and correction, since in her poem feathers accompany and denote hope. To be explicitly literary in this context is to be secondhand, insistently, even aggressively secondhand, and to disavow the raw subjectivity, unshaped by previous expression, that is the assumed precondition for the conveying of personal emotion – and this is only the first of a series of formal and tonal decisions, none of them obvious, that build up a jarring new harmony. The epigraph cites a different Dickinson poem (numbered 1765), crucial nouns from which, ‘Love’, ‘freight’, ‘groove’, have been replaced – visibly superimposed rather than simply substituted – with the word ‘Crow’. There’s no doubt that Hughes is the tutelary deity of this book, or the king to be slain in its sacred grove, and Crow its totem animal.
Dickens had a raven called Grip, in fact a series of birds bearing that name, and was on friendly terms with Edgar Allan Poe, who had admired the depiction of the raven inBarnaby Rudge (also called Grip) and was pleased to learn he had a real-life model. Poe knew (at least this is Guy Davenport’s contention in ‘The Geography of the Imagination’) that the raven was the device figuring on the banner of Alaric the Visigoth, so that a raven settling on a bust of Athene, as it does in the poem – ‘Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door’ – is a highly compressed image for the overthrow of reason. (Athens surrendered to Alaric in 395.) Hughes’s Crow retains the connection with the genus Corvus and with death but mixes in characteristics from Loki, the trickster who sometimes helps the gods and sometimes acts against them.