Bough Down

Karen Green

In 2008, Karen Green’s husband committed suicide. They had been married almost four years and had created a quiet and largely pleasurable life together—he a writer, she an artist—along with two companionable canine friends. Her husband “smelled like next to godliness,” Green recalls. “Air, snow, cumulus clouds . . .  An oxygen mask when panicked or short of breath; something that will steady you when the engine starts to fail.” But with his death, he is “nowhere, everywhere, or in a foil-wrapped box next to pictures of our moms.” This absence and its constant presence are at the heart of her lament, recorded in the prose fragments and intimate collages of Bough Down.

Though grief is “the most general of afflictions,” Joan Didion once observed, “its literature seem[s] remarkably spare.” Especially rare are approaches to mourning—what Didion calls “the act of dealing with grief,” as opposed to languishing in its passivity—that employ a style as elliptical and bitterly lyrical as Green’s. The book is as much about her odyssey through psych wards and medications after the suicide as it is about sorting through the suicide itself. Death has thrown her into metaphysical despair:

Can I feel the floor here, when there is a body out there, a body whose soul has made haste, a body who was my body to like and look at, at a time like this, a time of no time. Wherever it is he wants to wrench me from is where I am.

The aftermath of someone’s death is vertiginous, a murky, shimmering mass; to look at it head-on is to see only the fog of emotion. One must approach it sideways, entering it by way of an exhumation of facts and retrospections, as Anne Carson does in Nox, a multitextual exploration of her deceased brother; or by way of daily, gruelingly repetitious accounts of suffering, as Roland Barthes does in Mourning Diary, a record of his mother’s passing; or by way of a catechism of events, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the death of her husband, John Dunne:

I grew up in California, John and I lived there together for twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night. I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad.
John was talking, then he wasn’t.

Green, however, permeates the death event by giving voice to the paroxysms of emotion that grief begets, vividly illustrating how the past is now incompatible with the present: “I have a Polaroid of us kissing in another country. The funeral directors wrapped the box precisely, a layer of plain paper under golden foil. I recall your ear very well today, the way your hair grew around it. Under the paper is a brown plastic box, the color of a fast food booth. It doesn’t open easily.” Her fractured, sometimes indecipherable lines show that any attempt at evoking her husband’s death and its effect on her remain, as Carson put it, “a plain, odd history”—impossible to capture fully. Didion, too, admits to the elusiveness of putting into words and comprehending her husband’s death, as well as her inability to come away cleanly with a sense of self: “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”

The aftermath of someone’s death is vertiginous, a murky, shimmering mass. One must approach it sideways.

In this regard, Green faces a special difficulty: her husband was David Foster Wallace. This fact is both central to Bough Down and incidental to it. On the one hand, he was a famous, much admired writer, and Green’s new identity as “the designated survivor” is one she can’t escape. “You are like the moon,” she writes to Wallace, “you shed light on my insignificance from a great, wordless distance.” And lest she forget:

Strangers feel free to e-mail:
Nobody knew you before your husband took his life.
Nobody knew me, nobody knew me. I think this may be true.

On the other hand, Green’s loss—her role as wife, her identity as partner and companion—is her own. Bough Down is not only her autopsy of the why of his death (a fruitless gesture, perhaps, but one endemic to mourning), but also her inquiry into who she is now without him.

• • •

“Why do we blush before death?” Carson reflects. “If you are writing an elegy begin with the blush.” Bough Down is anything but an elegy—“I always feel like saying he died is letting him get away with something,” Green warns—and there is no blush in her account of Wallace’s death by hanging. “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down,” she writes, in one of the book’s most powerful lines. (Its linguistic economy and emotional bluntness recall Jim Harrison, who reconsiders suicide when he sees “My year-old daughter’s red / robe hangs from the doorknob shouting Stop.”) Wallace’s photographed face, writ large at a memorial service, sparks her anger, as does the brute fact of his absence:

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.

Still, the assemblage of memory, much like Didion’s careful accounting of incremental time, is all that remains for Green; the dead cannot speak, and they cannot answer for what they have left behind. And though Wallace, Dunne, and Carson’s brother Michael died differently, they all died suddenly and unexpectedly. In each case the survivors found themselves confronting foreign questions.

In an essay on Carson’s Nox, Meghan O’Rourke observes that the bereaved must rely on books, ideas, language, and memory—everything other than the deceased—in order to experience the loss. In this mode, the dead are like puppets: even when their own words are brought forth, they are ventriloquized by the living. Carson gathers letters, photographs, and poems to reconstruct a brother she barely knew and his death, which occurred at such a distance from her; Didion revisits places, both physically and psychically, that are haunted by memories of time spent with her husband. Throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion quotes sentences spoken in the past by Dunne and then either meditates on what he meant or, panicked, realizes she does not understand what he intended to convey; those sentences act as codes that transmit significant messages, and sometimes that cannot be decoded. Survivors, Didion writes, “live by symbols”: they “look back and see omens, messages they missed.” Green, too, thinks symbolically. The fragment “when men are dead interpreters,” which appears in one of her collages, succinctly captures the duality of attempting to reconstitute the deceased: it suggests that collecting enough detritus from the dead will force some kind of interpretation, but it also hints that only the deceased are capable of making meaning, of interpreting, their own motivations.

 The dead are like puppets: even when their own words are brought forth, they are ventriloquized by the living. 

These accumulations are put together, in each of these books, with an authorial intent. “When the person you love dies,” Green has said, “life becomes another code, a language that you don’t understand.” If she cannot make sense of the facts, she must piece them together into something new. This notion of reordered memory, of needing “more than words to find the meaning,” comes through in Bough Down’s collages—dense, diminutive pieces scattered throughout the book. Composed of scraps of printed material—cut-out words and phrases, stamps, prescriptions, and hospital reports (reminiscent of Didion’s obsession with medical textbooks while sitting by her daughter’s hospital bed, or Carson’s reworking of bits of translated language)—the collages, often overlaid with fingerprints, are Green’s way of re-authoring factual data to create new narratives, of literally cobbling together a code she can decipher. Echoing Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Frost, one collage notes that she “dreamed that I found the phrase to every thought.” As a result, all can be comprehended: “By a route obscure and / veiled in rain / Whose woods these are I think I know.”

Color is of particular importance in Green’s artwork. “Death is very black and white: after he died I felt like . . . I couldn’t see in color,” she noted in an interview on art and forgiveness. The first few prose fragments of Bough Down are composed in monochrome, as though she had to relearn how to identify the world in different hues: “Intake form, lab coat, cotton swab, scent of magnolia. The glare hurts my head.” The book’s third collage mimics this relearning by displaying the names of colors in hues other than the ones they name—rendering the word brown, for instance, in orange. The next collage is a kind of regression, reproducing the same words in black. Green’s materials are borrowed from stamp-collecting books, which use color to code where stamps should be placed. Color, in this sense, is Green’s guide in making sense of things: it shows her where to file them, how to organize them. Each stamp combination produces new texture, meaning, and emotion. “Pink is a new color I am seeing,” she remarks midway through the book. And then, an entire passage dyed red:

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. This is the consistency and hue of the sky as I drive north, using my windshield wipers to clear falling ash. Singed animals come down from the hills and run alongside the freeway.

Though language, for Green, is unreliable—“I is perishable, can’t is perishable, help is perishable, roots are perishable”—she manages in her searching, sometimes stuttering prose and compulsive collages to turn its unwieldiness to her advantage, shaping a narrative she can grasp. Green notes that a fellow psych patient, a woman whose hold on reality is equally slippery, does the same: “She has lost her glasses and starts to make up a story about how. By the dawn the rain has stopped, and the story is true.”

As it was for Didion, Barthes, and Carson, the fact of death is both elusive and impossible to let go of for Green, and part of her authorial power is always given to translating the deceased back to life. “The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down,” Green recalls. “Because I thought and still think maybe.” From the moment she discovered Wallace had hanged himself, she imagined that there might be a chance of bringing him back—both literally, in cutting him down to resuscitate him, and figuratively, by recalling moments with him and images of him. Though this book is a way for Green to accept that she is unable to revive him, there is no pat ending: “I can’t wrap this up,” she admits at the book’s conclusion. But she has endeavored to make sense of it. “There are other things to do besides being man’s best friend,” she writes: “One can sit around and compose, for example.”