Bough Down: “An argument against the contingency of life”


February 20th, 2014


(Review) Bough Down by Karen Green



Originally published December 19, 2013


For several years during childhood, my younger brother and I shared a room. When silence eventually fell after we’d been put to bed, I often began to worry. If I couldn’t hear his breathing, if he didn’t shift in his sleep or answer my urgent whispers (“Hey … hey … ” “What?” “ … Nothing”), I willed myself motionless, listening for signs of life. If I still couldn’t hear anything, I got up, tiptoed across the room, and leaned over him. He was never not breathing. Yet I continued these fretful nocturnal journeys throughout our childhood.

As we grew older, my concern became more practical. I wondered how I would react if I found his breath had stopped, what course of action I would take, and whether I would be able to even move from the spot where I’d be helplessly rooted to the floor. I was haunted by his possible death—an absence I could not understand as a child—and by my inability to conjure a suitable reaction.

I do not fear my own death as actively as I worry about being left to cope with the death of someone I love. And while I have lost loved ones, I’ve managed, because those deaths made sense, to hover at the edges of grief. From there, I watched others muck through it, station to station. (Inevitably, I imagine each of the stages of grief less as a pilgrimage than as suburban park trail, where Denial is a set of monkey bars, Anger a stepping post, etc. Mourning, to me, is a compulsory obstacle course.) From the safety of the path, so to speak, I found myself rationalizing away what felt like an improper response to loss with the argument that we all manifest grief differently. In my case, I insisted, it was by maintaining my distance. As a consequence, I have avoided mourners. I’ve skipped out on funerals. In shameful moments, I’ve forsaken those in need. Never because I didn’t care, I insist, but because I am too weak.

And so I didn’t want to read Bough Down, Karen Green’s memoir of loss and mourning. Despite myself, I brought the book home and put it on the shelf, where I intended it to remain, a vellum-shrouded apotropaic object, its presence enough to ward off misfortune.

Yet I was drawn to it. Not out of morbid curiosity—rather, it was the object itself, an evocative, elegantly designed book, that lured me. Its translucent dust jacket overlays a ghostly collage; it is printed on thick stock, giving it thoughtful weight. Those of us under the sway of books understand that these are not insubstantial qualities for an object to possess.

I found myself reading it. First in pieces, dipping into a few pages over morning coffee, a handful at lunch, maybe a passage or two before bed. I kept a novel nearby as a safeguard, in case I found myself pulled too close. I was never “reading” Green’s memoir, even as I read it. My casualness was deliberate, though it proved ineffective. As much as I hoped approaching the book at random in this way would keep me from falling under its spell, I returned to it again and again, until it was, suddenly, done.

Upon reaching the end of the book, where Green confesses in the last line that she “can’t wrap this up,” I skimmed the pages under my thumb and returned to the beginning.

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