At the start of Karen Green’s prismatic first book, Bough Down, it is June. “Does it begin like this?” she writes, and describes in glittering prose a pastoral arrangement of household objects: garden hose, cigarettes, fuzzy pills, artichoke stalks. The items seem innocent enough until they become intricately linked with the narrative surrounding the aftermath of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the author’s late husband.
“Our house smells like cooked dog piss. The cork floor has a speckled cigarette filter pattern, the linoleum is a grid of snack crackers. The coughing sky, the new pills, two sets of golden eyes, tracing our movements. What a yellowing place. I want to rip the carpet out. Instead I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish. I pray you back to me and there you are, in the indigo paper jumpsuit. Honey, you smell agathokakological.”
It’s a word one can imagine Wallace using, “agathokakological,” from Ancient Greek ἀγαθός (agathos, “good”) and κακός (kakos, “bad”), meaning “made up of both good and evil”; Bough Down is a beautiful anomaly in itself. It is many things: art book, collage, lyric, prose poetry and ultimately, a dizzying and wondrous incantation of grief.
Bough Down pulls the reader into a maelstrom of emotion while simultaneously keeping the grief at bay, as if the suffering is in the sole possession of the narrator; we see Wallace as if through a spy glass that offers a version of the writer that is Green’s alone, so the act of reading seems nearly voyeuristic. Like Susan Howe’s That This — also an elegy for a husband, the philosopher Peter H. Hare, which includes cut-ups of text and photographs — Bough Down, published by Siglio Press, is an art object in itself. Postage-stamp-sized collages by Green (who is also an artist) are interspersed throughout the book; they are laced with an almost unnerving delicacy. Like the work of Howe and Anne Carson, whose Nox is dedicated to her late brother, Bough Down elegantly blurs the discursive boundaries between poetry, prose, and visual art.
In That This, Howe wrote, “Now — putting bits of memory together, trying to pick out the good while doing away with the bad — I’m left with … the unpresentable violence of a negative double.” Doubles also exist in Bough Down, a “doppelgänger widow” who “does not totter in her heels; she branches out with the graceful invulnerability of a coastal cypress,” and most eloquently in the form of the “jazz lady,” whose increasing presence in the second half of the book lends the text a type of palpable duality.
This shadowed biplicity works because Green is able to inhabit so convincingly these “others” she chooses. It reminds me of the best parts in Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, where he spins dazzling portraits of multiple jazz legends. But the lens through which Green peers is tinged with her ongoing inquiry on absence. If the jazz lady is the mirror in which Green sees herself, it is also a method through which Green can articulate her own story’s searing reality without relying on self-referential depiction. The italicized quotes that sometimes accompany the jazz lady sections are snippets of lyrics that Billie Holiday sang: “Dear lord above/Send back my love;” “Skip that lipstick/Don’t explain;” and most heartbreaking, “for the sun to rot,” from Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
The double shadows in Bough Down, of Holiday, Wallace, of death itself, tint the writing with a multi-dimensional patina, and are not unlike Green’s mixed-media collages which feature cut-ups of poems (Marianne Moore, Henry David Thoreau), handwritten scrawls, fingerprints, small swathes of color. The tininess of these works makes one squint; often they seem sheathed in an ethereal haze. But grief is a complicated topography, and the pristine subtlety of Green’s art is upended — in a good way — by her prose. “I want to take all the chaotic stuff and make it quiet,” Green said in a 2010 New York Times article, and she does: “I need to talk to you,” she writes, addressing the novelist directly, “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.” And later, “The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.”
Regret courses through Bough Down, but unaccompanied by sentimentality. Green’s prose, conveyed in block-like passages that read with the refinement and rhythm characteristic of the best contemporary poets — think G.C. Waldrep, Amy Gerstler — blazes with a type of filmic gleam: “A crow in the sycamore opens his beak like big black garden shears and says, Ha. The mockingbirds say plummetplummetplummet.//… I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.”
Acedia, agoraphobia, alyssum, anemone. Dispersed through Bough Down, these words attest to Green’s sonic attention, her poetic method of communicating unspeakable emotion. These words live in the same realm as “animalculum,” “sesquipedalian” and “heliogabaline,” tongue-twisters that Wallace utilized so gracefully in the essays in Consider the Lobster. But in Bough Down, it is Green’s voice that mesmerizes, her images surreal yet particular: “You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque;” “his shoulders had a certain sloping topography which made my parts swell and accelerate;” “we are the Barbie peach of Caucasian babies making love in the afternoon.” The reader experiences Wallace as a conjuration attached to a past that displaces preconceptions of the writer even as it constructs another, more intimate reality, one of him as a patient, a beloved, a lover.
Bough Down is not simply a testament to suffering, but also to the purgative properties of the natural world. “The garden and the husband, well, I was confused about what I was keeping alive,” Green writes. The physicality of Bough Down — her poignant references to body parts, flower anatomy, even the heady descriptions of multi-colored pharmaceutical pills — lend the book an immediacy, even as Green is describing the past. The work enthralls because it exposes artistic creation as an act of necessity, this feat of laying it all down. Perhaps this is what the title alludes to — the concurrent processes of forgetting and remembering as they are set on the page. Bough Down continually challenges the reader to submit to memory while at the same time recognize its ongoingness. In Bough Down, we view the life of Green’s mind as it searches, flails, and discovers the world’s fierce truths, its luminosity.
Karen Green’s Bough Down is available from Siglio Press and other online sellers.