Karen Green - This exquisite book is an impressionistic miracle, an assemblage of short text fragments and collages by an artist trying to make sense of her husband’s suicide. That this husband was David Foster Wallace is beautifully beside the point, for the focus here is on the experience, the bleak and necessary journey of grief
Karen Green, Bough Down, Siglio Press, 2013.
With fearlessness and grace, Karen Green has created a profoundly beautiful and intensely moving lament. In this unusual narrative constructed of crystalline fragments of prose interspersed with miniature collages, Green conjures the urgency and inscrutability of a world shaped by love and loss.
In charting her passage through grief, she summons memories and the machinations of the interior mind with poetic precision, a startling sense of humor, and an acute awareness of contradictory truths and of the volatility of language. Like the snippets of Billie Holiday lyrics scattered throughout, Green distills each moment, locating the sweet and the bitter, with the emotional gravity of music.
In counterpoint, tiny visual collages punctuate the text, made of salvaged language and scraps of the material world. Made not to illustrate the words but as a parallel process of invocation and erasure, pilfering and remaking, each collage—and the creative act of making it—evinces the reassembling of life.
Bough Down is a book of dualities, probing the small spaces between lucidity and madness, desire and ambivalence, the living and the absent. Both an evocation of her love for her husband and an act of defiance in the face of devastating loss, Bough Down is a lapidary, keenly observed and composed work, awash with the honesty of an open heart.
KAREN GREEN is an artist and writer living and working in Northern California.
One of the most beautiful expressions of love and loss you will ever read. Bough Down put me in mind somehow of the Portuguese fado: a lament rendered so precisely it becomes luminous and affirmative. This is a profound, lovely, bitterly funny book that fulfills the first requirement of great art: it is magical.—GEORGE SAUNDERS
In Bough Down Karen Green has created beautiful missives, both textual and visual, around an invisible core of grief that we all, one way or another, share. Like those great poets before her, Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson, Green’s poetic ear, her honed images, and her paradoxically confessional yet non-confessional voice challenge the reader to rise up to meet the demands of a wonderfully humane artistic vision. This is a stunning book.—DAVID MEANS
Bough Down is a breathtaking lyric elegy. A fusion of poetry, prose, and visual images, it is a work of emotional acuity, quiet ferocity, and riven bravery. Its use of silence, compression, detail, and the fragmentary is powerful and rich. I can’t call to mind a book that centers on loss which better sustains its summoning, grief, anger, probing, intelligence, and dignity. Wow! I am still in its grip.—AMY GERSTLER
Some of the book’s pages hold tiny collages (remnants from a life: canceled stamps, scribbles and edits, fingerprints that look like they were captured in ash, or a detective’s powder), and some hold brief, elliptical bursts of text (a dream, a trip to the dentist, memories of a moment so painful, and so personal, that I’ve erased my attempts to describe it). Everything gathers around an absence so present the hole shapes the book: the death of Green’s husband, in 2008. To those who have lived through such a loss, this punishingly tender elegy may have totemic power, but to every reader Green’s empathy, her humor, and her observations—so clear they are nearly hallucinatory—are strong medicine. —Andi Mudd
At the start of Karen Green’s prismatic first book, Bough Down, it is June. “Does it begin like this?” she writes, and describes in glittering prose a pastoral arrangement of household objects: garden hose, cigarettes, fuzzy pills, artichoke stalks. The items seem innocent enough until they become intricately linked with the narrative surrounding the aftermath of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the author’s late husband.
“Our house smells like cooked dog piss. The cork floor has a speckled cigarette filter pattern, the linoleum is a grid of snack crackers. The coughing sky, the new pills, two sets of golden eyes, tracing our movements. What a yellowing place. I want to rip the carpet out. Instead I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish. I pray you back to me and there you are, in the indigo paper jumpsuit. Honey, you smell agathokakological.”
It’s a word one can imagine Wallace using, “agathokakological,” from Ancient Greek ἀγαθός (agathos, “good”) and κακός (kakos, “bad”), meaning “made up of both good and evil”; Bough Down is a beautiful anomaly in itself. It is many things: art book, collage, lyric, prose poetry and ultimately, a dizzying and wondrous incantation of grief.
Bough Down pulls the reader into a maelstrom of emotion while simultaneously keeping the grief at bay, as if the suffering is in the sole possession of the narrator; we see Wallace as if through a spy glass that offers a version of the writer that is Green’s alone, so the act of reading seems nearly voyeuristic. Like Susan Howe’s That This — also an elegy for a husband, the philosopher Peter H. Hare, which includes cut-ups of text and photographs — Bough Down, published by Siglio Press, is an art object in itself. Postage-stamp-sized collages by Green (who is also an artist) are interspersed throughout the book; they are laced with an almost unnerving delicacy. Like the work of Howe and Anne Carson, whose Nox is dedicated to her late brother, Bough Down elegantly blurs the discursive boundaries between poetry, prose, and visual art.
In That This, Howe wrote, “Now — putting bits of memory together, trying to pick out the good while doing away with the bad — I’m left with … the unpresentable violence of a negative double.” Doubles also exist in Bough Down, a “doppelgänger widow” who “does not totter in her heels; she branches out with the graceful invulnerability of a coastal cypress,” and most eloquently in the form of the “jazz lady,” whose increasing presence in the second half of the book lends the text a type of palpable duality.
This shadowed biplicity works because Green is able to inhabit so convincingly these “others” she chooses. It reminds me of the best parts in Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, where he spins dazzling portraits of multiple jazz legends. But the lens through which Green peers is tinged with her ongoing inquiry on absence. If the jazz lady is the mirror in which Green sees herself, it is also a method through which Green can articulate her own story’s searing reality without relying on self-referential depiction. The italicized quotes that sometimes accompany the jazz lady sections are snippets of lyrics that Billie Holiday sang: “Dear lord above/Send back my love;” “Skip that lipstick/Don’t explain;” and most heartbreaking, “for the sun to rot,” from Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
The double shadows in Bough Down, of Holiday, Wallace, of death itself, tint the writing with a multi-dimensional patina, and are not unlike Green’s mixed-media collages which feature cut-ups of poems (Marianne Moore, Henry David Thoreau), handwritten scrawls, fingerprints, small swathes of color. The tininess of these works makes one squint; often they seem sheathed in an ethereal haze. But grief is a complicated topography, and the pristine subtlety of Green’s art is upended — in a good way — by her prose. “I want to take all the chaotic stuff and make it quiet,” Green said in a 2010 New York Times article, and she does: “I need to talk to you,” she writes, addressing the novelist directly, “Your arms feel an irrational color. Not arms, stalks. Not tongue, anemone. Not this, you. The half moon above and its tableau is mine alone.” And later, “The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.”
Regret courses through Bough Down, but unaccompanied by sentimentality. Green’s prose, conveyed in block-like passages that read with the refinement and rhythm characteristic of the best contemporary poets — think G.C. Waldrep, Amy Gerstler — blazes with a type of filmic gleam: “A crow in the sycamore opens his beak like big black garden shears and says, Ha. The mockingbirds say plummetplummetplummet.//… I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.”
Acedia, agoraphobia, alyssum, anemone. Dispersed through Bough Down, these words attest to Green’s sonic attention, her poetic method of communicating unspeakable emotion. These words live in the same realm as “animalculum,” “sesquipedalian” and “heliogabaline,” tongue-twisters that Wallace utilized so gracefully in the essays in Consider the Lobster. But in Bough Down, it is Green’s voice that mesmerizes, her images surreal yet particular: “You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque;” “his shoulders had a certain sloping topography which made my parts swell and accelerate;” “we are the Barbie peach of Caucasian babies making love in the afternoon.” The reader experiences Wallace as a conjuration attached to a past that displaces preconceptions of the writer even as it constructs another, more intimate reality, one of him as a patient, a beloved, a lover.
Bough Down is not simply a testament to suffering, but also to the purgative properties of the natural world. “The garden and the husband, well, I was confused about what I was keeping alive,” Green writes. The physicality of Bough Down — her poignant references to body parts, flower anatomy, even the heady descriptions of multi-colored pharmaceutical pills — lend the book an immediacy, even as Green is describing the past. The work enthralls because it exposes artistic creation as an act of necessity, this feat of laying it all down. Perhaps this is what the title alludes to — the concurrent processes of forgetting and remembering as they are set on the page. Bough Down continually challenges the reader to submit to memory while at the same time recognize its ongoingness. In Bough Down, we view the life of Green’s mind as it searches, flails, and discovers the world’s fierce truths, its luminosity. - J. Mae Barizo
KAREN GREEN’S NEW — and incredibly, her first — book Bough Down, from Siglio Press, is an astonishment. It is one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I’ve read. The book consists of a series of prose poems, or individuated chunks of poetic prose, interspersed with postage-stamp-sized collages made by Green, who is also a visual artist. Collectively the text bears witness to the 2008 suicide of her husband, the writer David Foster Wallace, and its harrowing aftermath for Green. The book feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing. Instead it is suffused throughout with the dissonant, private richness of the minor, while also managing to be a major achievement.
Upon first read, Bough Down feels disorienting and surreal — like entering a drugged wormhole of grief, pills, and barely tolerable engrams and emotions, which appear via allegory, hallucination, synecdoche, and blur. Upon rereading, however, the bones of the book’s structure become admirably clear. “June, black // Does it begin like this?” Green hovers at the start, before plunging into the day of Wallace’s death, her experience of finding his body, her dealings with the police, and the haze of public commemorations. (I’m feeling free in this review to use “Green” and “Wallace” instead of the more formalist/distanced “the speaker” and “her husband” even though the text of the book avoids proper names.)
As the “support guys” become scarce, as they eventually must, we stay with Green — now alone, and haunted — in her house, her garden, her “village,” her mind, her body, her heart. We also bear witness to her own deepening relationship with psychiatrists and pharmaceuticals, which takes place in something of an echo chamber left by her husband, who struggled mightily to treat the depression which precipitated his suicide. The book charts the passage of time by moving through the seasons and stations of Green’s “non-linear, inelegant progress” of grief. Green smartly ends the book (spoiler alert!) “I can’t wrap this up” (how could she?), but nonetheless there is a real sense of progression and resolution in Bough Down, one that feels earned and wise, never cheap.
Indeed, while Bough Down is a memoir of grief, part of what keeps it from playing “the grief castanets” (to borrow Wayne Koestenbaum’s phrase) is the acuteness of Green’s sensibility. She suffers no fools, and instinctively calls out and rejects any trope that feels easy or predictable. She is never mean per se, but she is keen, as when she describes a “doppelganger widow” in town (presumably a woman who performs “outliving” almost professionally): “The doppelganger widow shows up at the most prestigious service draped on the most smartest and meanest support guy. She does not totter in her heels; she branches out with the graceful invulnerability of a coastal cypress.” In response to the sentimental truisms offered at funerals, Green writes:
I want him pissed off at politicians, ill at ease, trying to manipulate me into doing favors for him I would do anyway. I want him looking for his glasses, trying not to come, doing the dumb verb of journaling, getting spinach caught between canine and gum, berating my logorrhea, or my not staying mum. I don’t want him at peace.Elsewhere in Bough Down, Green says, “It is hard to remember tender things tenderly.” But as the above litany of memories indicates, Green has no trouble evoking tender details of her husband, especially those of the physical variety. It is a refreshing relief, in a grief memoir, to hear the lost love object remembered not just in love, but in lust. Green pays homage to his elegant legs, his smell (“like godliness”), the shade of his nipples. These details don’t just make a lovely tribute; they also reinvent masculinity, noting specificities, which stand blessedly apart from “Updike”-like attributes. “Your legs were elegant, and you crossed them elegantly, not like a boy pretending his jewels were too big,” she writes, underscoring the difference.
The tender things may be painful for Green to remember; due to her crystalline, sincere rendering, they are also painful to read about. Perhaps because this is not the memoir of a couple married for decades — Green and Wallace had been married for but four years at the time of his death — the love here conveyed feels hot, blooming, then disastrously cut short, tragically adumbrated by all the trauma and anger that constitute suicide’s ugly gifts. (“The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense,” Green writes, struggling with the cruelty of the paradox.) I could quote any number of excruciating passages, but here is one of the most delicate and agonized: “On our wedding night we smiled at the antler chandelier rigged with rope and walls as cold as snow. Sorry, sorry. How on earth.” How on earth did our love come to this; how on earth did we find this love: two sentiments locked together in a Gordian knot — perhaps forever — by the violent abandonment of Wallace’s death. - Maggie Nelson
Shadows1. The Paradox: I don’t want to discuss Karen Green’s Bough Down in the shadow of her husband’s death; if it is impossible not to, this condition replicates another mode of cultural violence, namely, subsuming a woman’s texts to her more famous, more serious, male writer counterpart.
2. Because Green’s book is an achievement in that it resists such closure — resists naming her dead husband, the author, or his texts — making him, instead, her own shadow figure, one haunting the text and her life endlessly.
3. And yet if Green refuses to name the Dead Author, I have yet to read a review of Bough Down that hasn’t named him, or, indeed, identified her as his widow. That this is inevitable does not make it less complicated. That Green, a visual artist, was a writer long before she met said husband, and certainly long before his death — and that this is the first we’ve heard from her — is no less insignificant. That her text, like her life, is marked by an awareness of suffering — loss, grief, psychic alienation — makes Bough Down, as excruciating as it is, if you are of a certain persuasion, which I’d argue we all are at one point or another, deeply satisfying.
LamentationBecause if Bough Down is a love story, it is also a documentation of a very specific trauma, that of loss — a documentation which a scholar could read as positively valued, as something able to provide many things, not least of all the removal of artifice.
If the Public Widow and the Memorial Ceremonies (Green’s references to the post-suicide ceremony) are rendered as alienating public displays — that is, Artifice — then Green’s book can be described in terms of lamentation, antidote to the artificial, lyric revealing something of the language (and silence) of loss, inextricably linked to love.
4. Anticipating this, the text includes a call from her son: “Happy Birthday Hag Widow,” a moment which marks both Green’s sense of humor and her willingness to de-mystify her plight. Her plight (she won’t elevate it to Fate and neither will this review): to live in the shadow of her husband’s death, to become his symptoms, to embody the taboo of suicide yet resist it. To create art — to write a book — which resists.
5. So if our reading of the book inevitably invokes the loss of the writer, one reading of its function is to provide psychological witness, cultural artifact, gendered performance, and political tool. Political because it is dangerous to be ill in this country, not to speak of within a larger system or paradigm, which makes individuals into “consumers” of mental health care. Dangerous because it is maddening to be an artist under capitalism, a spiritual seeker within a dominant psychopharmamedical complex where they take “drugs that give the well-insured tremors” that “make patients speak in incomplete” (It is here that Green’s line breaks off, a moment, like many in the book, pointing to the failure of language to represent grief, or anything else, with accuracy.) - SUZANNE SCANLON
I learned a valuable lesson in grief last year.
Shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook in December, my wife and I were horrified to learn that our friends’ daughter, Avielle, was among the schoolchildren who had been killed. A few days after the tragedy, seeking a reprieve from our relentless sorrow, my wife and I went Christmas shopping at Anthropologie at Otay Lakes Town Center. Big mistake.
The holiday music and festive cheer inside the beautifully designed store was so out of sync with the way we felt that we momentarily broke down. Shoppers slipped around us and avoided our section of the store while we sobbed. When the moment passed, and it always passes, we resumed shopping, a little freaked out by the spectacle we’d become.
Of course, our friends in Sandy Hook have endured much, much worse. In addition to the loss of their child, they’ve been called puppets by the gun lobby and crisis actors by conspiracy loons. At a time when they’ve been at their most vulnerable, they’ve been attacked.
Artist and writer Karen Green can relate. Her book, Bough Down, published by Siglio, is an elegy for her husband, the much-loved writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.
Green, a visual artist who works in a variety of media, has come under fire by the kooks and cranks who troll online comments sections of popular portals and websites. Green writes, “Strangers feel free to email: Nobody knew you before your husband took his life.”
Green turns this cruel and callous dagger into a hallucinatory riff that drains the barb of its venom and turns it into something revelatory. In Bough Down, she blends striking miniature collages with dreams, vignettes and recollections distorted by the unreliability of her memories and addled by the drugs her doctor urges her to call meds.
It is a work concerned not so much with tragedy but its aftermath, an intense period when one’s senses are heightened, laughter erupts through tears and every impression leaves a mark: “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound.”
This is precisely the kind of worry that makes people uncomfortable. Bring it up too often and the worrier will get that “We’re concerned about you” look that leads to late-night phone calls, increased dosages, a reality ravined. It’s easier to submit to the pharmacological voodoo that is 21st-century mental healthcare, which seldom works and fails to address the fundamental problem: that which others would prefer to be left unsaid cannot be unthought.
Green, thankfully, has other options. By expressing her grief through words and images, she transmutes the experience into art. The results are nothing short of shattering.
“Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of its cavity.”
With cutting prose (“It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly”) and haunting imagery, Bough Down is a palimpsest of sorrow. It is a portrait seen through a funeral veil, a fragmented collage of a past that wasn’t what it seemed and a future that never will be.
“Sentences have been highlighted just to demolish me when I find them. I will find them for years.”
When her husband died, Green’s loss was compounded by the adoring fans who clamored for answers and shaped what they could get into a narrative that assuaged the loss of the books they would never get to read. In Bough Down, Green takes the grief back and makes it indelibly her own.
“The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.” - Jim Ruland
Part memoir, part artist’s book, “Bough Down” is Karen Green’s chronicle of the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace, and of her own mourning. It is a delicate vellum-covered object, in which narrative scenes are interspersed with abstract collages (most of them not much larger than a postage stamp and some made out of actual stamps). Ms. Green turns out to be a profoundly good writer: “Bough Down” is lovely, smart and funny, in addition to being brutally clear and sad.
The suicide, by hanging, occurs early on, and most of the book concerns its aftermath, including Ms. Green’s time being treated for depression under the care of the same “fallible doctor” who had treated her husband and in the same psychiatric institution, where “no longer do I wear the Visitor’s patch above my heart.” Anonymous characters move ghost-like through her life—the “support guys,” the “doppelganger widow”—but the story always returns to her own grief and loss. Although she does not mention Wallace anywhere by name, Ms. Green draws him with such specificity and care that his presence is everywhere palpable. She did not lose a generic husband or a famous writer; she lost the particular man whose “legs were elegant,” who did, as he called it, “the dumb verb of journaling,” and who said things like, “Honey, you smell agathokakological” (containing both good and evil).
This eye for specificity is one of Ms. Green’s strengths, whether she is depicting the disaffecting mood of the hospital (“In a corner, a cluster of lab coats made lunch plans”) or, bluntly, the scene of her husband’s death (“I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down”). Even when the prose turns impressionistic, it arrives at an image or emotion that is startlingly clear: “There is a church bell in town made out of the mortared skulls of everyone who ever had a migraine. At night I know where the sound comes from, how it was born and where in the body it reverberates. Every hour on the hour it tells me what I did and do wrong: You did not see that cloud or that fluttering lid as portents, you did not decipher the acrostics, you left the house, you live in the past, you left the house.”
Perhaps most impressive about “Bough Down” is that, despite the poetic pitch of its language, it refuses to poeticize its subject. It does not resolve into pure despondency, on the one hand, or redemptive hope, on the other. Instead, Ms. Green registers the complexity of grief and in the process makes something beautiful out of the saddest stuff in the world. - Martin Riker