Maggie Nelson on Bough Down: “Uncanny hallucination and sublunar realism”

Reviews

May 2nd, 2013

 

(Review) Bough Down by Karen Green

LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

Untied, Undone: “Bough Down” by Karen Green

MAGGIE NELSON

 

 

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.

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