Bough Down: “Out of control and contained … Comfortably unsure”


November 25th, 2013


(Review) Bough Down by Karen Green


After his Ab•squat•u•lation


Originally published September 30, 2013


The reader holding Bough Down for the first time will see a collage of text partly blocked by a translucent flap with the texture of thick wax paper on which the title is written in what looks like a scrawny longhand until you notice that the letters look more like wires bent and threaded into shape, or stitches on a wound. The author, Karen Green, was married to David Foster Wallace when he killed himself in 2008, and much of her art for the past five years has been an attempt to make sense of his death and to live alongside it.

This is the aim of Bough Down, as one can tell from the pun in the title. “Bough down”—as in “man down.” As in the unnatural trauma of cutting down her husband, who hanged himself, or the wish that the bar he hanged himself on had not borne his weight and could have saved him. Or “bow down” to her husband, dead, pale like the cover flap; it is almost as if its stitches were intended for him.

The cover’s meanings are clear, or nearly so. The lines of cut and pasted text give the collage the look of a ransom note; the sequence of alphabetized Latinate words with syllable markers and pen marks, one of those words in each sentence, seems like part of a vocabulary assignment; the lines read like notes on her grief, none of which follow from each other and none of which completes its thought.

One can think of various readings. That grief is amorphous, unending; that a way to give form to cycles of thoughts is to impose the arbitrary form of an exercise; that an exercise in Latinate vocabulary is a way for Green to think through her husband’s famously Latinate vocabulary; that she begins at the start of the alphabet, with a long way to go. The reference to a ransom note hints at a wish that her husband had only been kidnapped. What none of this can explain are the absences at the end of each line. “After his ab•squat•u•lation, her garden lost its” what?

Like the layered text on its cover, the book moves from easy answers to unanswerable questions. This is its peculiar strength. It is hard to write well about personal grief without writing either so clearly that you falsify the experience or so cryptically that you perpetuate your former confusion without the consolation of wisdom or art. But the lucid parts of Green’s experience spur us to think through the others, and because her pain and confusion are written and pictured not just with integrity but with a gorgeous sensibility they should give us a feeling of hope. Hope, not just interest or pleasure, because her subject is a suicide. A different approach to his goals can be a kind of challenge to him, and getting there a kind of redemption.


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