Bough Down
by Karen Green

Reviewed by D.H. Varma


Published by Siglio Press, 2013   |   186 pages

Karen Green was married to one of America’s most esteemed contemporary writers. Many recognize him simply by his bandana-cloaked brow. Many know he committed suicide. Green was the first to know. She found him and cut the rope. Bough Down, Green’s elegy for her late husband, David Foster Wallace, collects writings and artworks composed in the aftermath, in memory of her husband, and in reaction to the troubling publicity she faced in the wake of his suicide. It has already been hailed widely (“an astonishment”), and this intensely cerebral, introspective, and surreal assemblage of viscous prose and collage art is indeed a significant meditation on grief and the aftermath of tragedy.

Bough Down is episodic, fragmentary. The narrative, broken off into sections – often headed with the names of months – flickers discontinuously through space and time. We visit the home she and Wallace shared, the garden they planted together, the mental health facility where Wallace received treatment. A number of characters recur in Green’s efforts to remember and fathom – the couple’s dogs, members of a bird sanctuary Green calls “support guys,” a singing resident of the mental facility known as “the Jazz Lady.”  The expectation that Bough Down will progress towards convalescence arises from the chronological procession of the section headers—they proceed from June to December—but the episodic, achronological nature of the text frustrates any such hope. At this stage in Green’s grief, her memories and ruminations are still more burdened with melancholy and loss than warmth or fond remembrance.

Bough Down is laced throughout with the surreal, which adds richer hues of meaning and emotional texture to the work’s narrative, allowing Green to rework and repurpose the traditional elegy form. In one scene, Green cooks dinner for Wallace, who then evaporates, returns as an animal in a snowy setting, and then morphs into an oil spill:

Feathers fall from the sky like talcum, cast iron pots smoke poems onto the kitchen ceiling, you fade slowly away from dinner until a pristine white shirt is left in your chair. You ruefully wave from every window. You are reborn in snow as an innocent animal, happy now. You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque.

In another scene, Green again calls out to Wallace, reliving the awful moment of discovering his body:

Eyes like small white fish, changing course. An optical illusion. Every view is peripheral now. I cannot see or I see too much. I need to talk to you. 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. The seconds maybe be important and I run in them. I bear your weight in them. The scissors are too dull. The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down.

In these surreal moments, these gaping wounds of memory and longing, Green creates portraits of grief for the reader to share, to embody, inviting us to bear intimate witness to her profound grief.

The largely non-pictorial collages that are scattered throughout Bough Down – compilations of smaller materials (postal stamps, fingerprints, single strands of hair, etc.) – convey a sense of minutia held dear. Often they take on the appearance of ancient palimpsests, collages overset with text clippings, themselves set upon deeper layers of imagery and text. Viewed sequentially, these works present a narrative of their own that variously complements and evades that of the prose text they accompany. In the volume’s second collage, for example, the names of colors (“DARK BLUE,” “WHITE PAPER,” “YELLOW,” etc.), handwritten in noncorresponding colors, appear in the periphery of a central blur of red and blue that hints at the shape of a heart. Image and text here evoke multiple breakdowns – a breakdown of color categories, a nervous breakdown, a heartbreak. In the following collage, the volume’s third, words appear in printed type and surround a central fingerprint. Both text and fingerprint convey a distancing, the (eerie) effect of a slow zoom out. Everything is crystalizing, resolving, but in that resolution itself are losses – the loss of color, the loss of heart.

Bough Down begins with the simple question: “Does it begin like this?” It is not a question of memory, of how a specific event has always and so will again transpire, but is instead an inquiry into the nature of grief itself: How does grief begin? How is it experienced? This is the way of Green’s text. Bough Down, though a work suffused with memory and sorrow, is simultaneously an acutely present work, full of the intense nowness of grief. As the work progresses, the section titles that carry the names of months come to be seen not as signifying specific months but instead various emotional states which Green regards with solemnity and reverence, like headstones. Throughout Bough Down Green’s lines appear like still-lifes, furthering the effect of stillness within the pathos:

The mouth of the Volvo opens to reveal something coiled: cotton paisley affixed to the garden hose with electrical tape. Your simulated overnight bag reeks of American Spirits, a few fuzzy pills caught in the seams. On the back burner, a mercury-filled tooth crumbles. Garden ants draw vibrating, teeming stripes up and down the artichoke hearts.

Resisting simple narrative function by eschewing linear sequence, and lacking an obvious subject or character or setting, these sentences create a tableau upon which we project Green’s empathy and grief.

In the psychic apertures and cavities that lacerate Bough Down we witness the sense of the aftermath of tragedy as a submergence, as a return to the materiality of the world before consciousness or meaning arose.

D.H. Varma is currently a Prose Teaching Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Notre Dame. His fiction has appeared in Oxford American Magazine, Mikrokosmos, Barely South Review, and elsewhere.

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