Untied, Undone

By Maggie NelsonMay 2, 2013

Untied, Undone

Bough Down by Karen Green

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.

Bough Down is also keen in its sense of genre. Green explicitly evokes and manhandles several, including noirish crime drama and the mental illness narrative. About her initial interrogation by the police, she writes wryly: “The two-dimensional officer’s TV fantasies were coming true. He held the note in his black latex glove. He felt taller. He had the wife to interrogate.” And about one of the doctors she visits for relief: “The doctor wears his pink shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I see his flaws clearly before he gives me a shot which will put me to sleep until after the holidays. He is making a mercy call, and the needle is part of my invention. Pink is a new color I am seeing.” Bough Down is populated by a host of almost allegorical characters: “the officer” and “the doctor” join “the doppelganger widow,” “the support guys,” “the jazz lady,” “the mathboy,” “Agnes,” and so on. About the recurrent figure of “the jazz lady,” whose tribulations and lyricisms correspond to Green’s own, Green writes: “I don’t know if the jazz lady is in the first or third person.” We don’t know either, but it doesn’t matter — part of the book’s magic is that it seems to be written in a private allegorical code, which also feels, especially upon rereadings, readily decipherable, public, and “true.” Via the weird rhythm of Green’s attention, the anecdotes she relates all hover somewhere between uncanny hallucination and sublunar realism. “Applied brie to both knees through the holes in my jeans and let the dogs lick it off, as a joke, kind of.” “I keep your deodorant, which I use sparingly. I make a slimy mustache with it before I tuck in.” Whether these events actually happened (I suspect they did), or whether Green is writing from an imagination deranged from grief, becomes irrelevant. The action is in the poetry, where, as Antonin Artaud once wrote from the madhouse, “Jamais réel et toujours vrai.” 

Genre-wise, Bough Down also makes a fascinating contribution to drug literature. While the drugs the speaker takes may be prescribed, Green’s jagged account of their effects stands on par with those of William Burroughs (whose ghost is present via Green’s cut-ups) or the wry, fierce Alexander Trocchi. At one point a doctor instructs the speaker to call them “meds,” not “drugs.” But, alas, as we are all coming to know in this pharmaceutically soaked day and age, there isn’t much difference (or, rather, the difference is ideological, not physiological). “So I hear voices and I see voices, don’t we all? Anyway I suggest I need to go off one of the pills but the doc says wait until the daffodils,” Green writes. The speaker’s use of drugs/meds — including certain blue pills left behind by her husband — becomes not only a means of coping, but also of trading subject positions with the deceased. At several moments, Green becomes the mental patient that Wallace once was: same place, same pills, same doctors, same intolerable mental state. “Cobra-insured, I have driven myself back there, looking for us, and I have tried some drugs. I’m trying them. No longer do I wear the Visitor patch above my heart. I do what the doctor says.” Becoming-patient becomes another means of holding onto to the absent beloved, another way of trying to understand. 

The collages that pepper the pages of Bough Down offer glimpses into Green’s “other” practice, that of visual art. Their content can be hard to parse, but the appearance in them of related typeset lines that didn’t make it into the prose gives one the feeling that the entire text, no matter how coherent it may seem, has emerged from an ocean of fragments. These fragments include bits of poems by a refreshingly unfashionable (or at least eccentric) cast of writers, including Marianne Moore, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Henry David Thoreau, and Richard P. Blackmur. The non-verbal collages offer a welcome zone of abstraction, delicacy, and beauty. While I think the book would be the lesser without them, it is also the case that I never found them as compelling as the written text. There’s just so much plain old great writing here, one scarcely needs the visual element — as in this descriptive passage: “A bloom of contaminates in the ocean is called a red tide. Before I knew better, I swam in one. The sea was a chowder the color of dried blood. I got out when I saw the fish, bobbing like croutons.” Nonetheless, I am glad the collages are there — like Emily Dickinson’s dashes, they alter the rhythm, deepen the mystery, facet Green’s artistry, and allow the mind and heart their perches as well as their flights. Green chose wisely when she chose the publisher Siglio, as Siglio’s attention to the book’s physical grace intensifies the sense that we are holding in our hands a rare and precious thing.

In the end, the deepest subject of Bough Down may be the nature of suffering itself. “I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, I need I need I need,” Green writes. Who hasn’t been here — and if you haven’t, horrible as it may be, there is some kind of knowledge to be found in touching bottom. As Judith Butler writes: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact.” (Green: “I am decomposed, I fly apart.”) Butler’s book on grief, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, is more politically concerned, but it too asks hard questions about the relationship between private pain and public life. Both authors know it is no easy task to bring one’s suffering into the public square in a way that feels genuine or of use.

This task can be all the more complicated when one is already living in the public eye, as Green was via her marriage to a well-known writer. Green addresses this latter predicament when she writes:

Strangers feel free to email:

Nobody knew you before your husband took his life.

Nobody knew me, nobody knew me. I think this may be true.

I must admit that it was hard to read these lines without thinking, Well, after publishing a book this good, they’ll know you now. And yet one of the things I respect most about Bough Down is how it radiates — protects, even — a fierce sense of privacy, while also feeling generous, probing, and stark at every turn. Nowhere is this paradox more present than in Green’s account of finding her husband’s body: “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.” This tableau, along with many others, is indeed hers alone — and it will remain so, for better or worse, in perpetuity. Yet Green has also now given these tableaux to us, to rotate in our own light. “Some people would rather die than be understood,” writes Green; for a moment, I suspected she was describing herself. But her next sentence made me smile, with its swerve: “Not me.” This wise, open, intelligent, and pained book shows that she means it. As Merleau-Ponty once put it in a different context, no one here is saved, no one totally lost.


Maggie Nelson is a poet and the author of nonfiction books and essays. Her most recent book is The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

LARB Contributor

Maggie Nelson is a poet and the author of nonfiction books and essays, including Jane: A Murder, The Art of Cruelty, Bluets, and The Argonauts. She teaches at CalArts in Valencia, California.


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