Bough Down by Karen Green

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Nobody knew you before your husband took his life.

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

be true.

Karen Green’s husband was a famous novelist. A Great Writer. His books as long as dictionaries, his way with words such that he served as a member of the usage panel for the dictionary itself.

Green’s memoir Bough Down is written from the shadows, from behind the words that piled up in books and made her husband famous, behind the notes left scattered around their house after he was gone. Sentences have been highlighted just to demolish me when I find them. I will find them for years.

It is tempting for a reviewer to name the novelist; maybe his name will compel you to read her book. Most likely, though, if you care enough about the novelist to read everything by and about him you already know his name. No need to speak it. Green hasn’t. Bough Down would be worthy of our attention even if her husband had never published a word.

Green is primarily a visual artist; Bough Down is her first book of prose/poetry. It is made up of brief, fragmented sections of text accompanied by works of visual collage—“salvaged language and scraps of the material world” as her publisher describes them, made from “pages torn from both beloved and obscure books; bits of love letters, medical records, condolences, and paper refuse; old postage stamps and the albums which classify them.” The visual art is not simply illustration. The collages work in tandem with the text, demonstrating over and over again the limits of language.

Bough Down is a book of things left unsaid, unfinished—

I always had a thing for your hair, soft against my or scratchy against my

and

The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.

Text and art appear sparingly in Bough Down—some pages have just a few lines of prose, some feature miniature collage, and some are left completely blank. Perhaps the succinctness of the text is due to Green’s background as a visual artist rather than as a writer. Maybe it is in response to her husband’s many published words—the text of her book, standardized to fit the page, would fill just the first few of one of his long works. Or is it simply that suicide demands negative space in the telling?

It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly, she tells us, though Bough Down is full of tenderness—and we pulled up our shirts to rub bellies and yours was so much flatter but filled with garden bread anyway anyway up went our shirts, solar to solar plexus[.] Full of tenderness, but never sappy, it is also raw, open, festering—Our house smells like cooked dog piss. […] I want to rip the carpet out. Instead I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish.

Karen Green

Karen Green

Is Bough Down a memoir? If it is, the genre is more expansive, more alive than most readers may have supposed. Bough Down resides somewhere between real and unreal, seen and unseen, a hallucination, a breath on the neck that turns out simply to be the breeze. It is a book of magical thinking, Didion stripped to bare bones. You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque.

As we read, we witness the brief marriage, her husband’s depression, the doctors, his hospital visits, we are present as he stretches out suspended—One dog backed away, one ran up to kiss the face we loved—and then the aftermath, the funeral, the pills she now takes, some of them his. We see Green return to the hospital in her grief, this time as a patient—I have your symptoms.

The narrative is broken up, never straightforward, like the visual collages that break up the text. References to months and seasons give the reader a sense of time, but nothing is certain. This morning you are nowhere, everywhere, or in a foil-wrapped box next to portraits of our moms, reflecting sunlight. Her husband appears sometimes alive, sometimes dead, and it is not always clear which is which. Dreams and drugs and visions abound so that one moment he is real—I bake and you eat, digest. The next—Vanish.

Bough Down is full of characters—the wife, the husband, the jazz lady, the doppelgänger widow, the doc, the support guys, the officer. Unnamed, all floating between reality and myth and dream. The jazz lady is another patient in the hospital with Green. No one knows how the jazz lady ended up in the hospital again. Or is she just a voice on the radio, floating in and out of Green’s consciousness? I don’t know if the jazz lady is in first or third person.

Death excites people but from a distance, Green observes. This is the degenerate draw of the grief memoir, driving by an accident and getting a good look before driving home to your safe family. Any narrative of death allows such a response, but Green does nothing to promote it. (And in truth, who is really safe from grief?) The fragmented nature of the text encourages the reader to enter the scene rather than stand idly by. We become engaged in her grief, surrender to it, feel the world swirl around us.

Green wants no part of the impulse to canonize her husband. The Great Writer was her husband, her lover, her friend. He was a man. 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 […] I don’t want him at peace.

My brother chose the same ending. The rafters. I think about his neck, the skin rubbed raw by bed sheets. Our dad found him, I never saw, though I see him still. An image from Bough Down stays with me, impossible to escape. Maybe this is why we write. The urge to preserve that which is already gone—

I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down.


Kyle Boelte is the author of The Beautiful Unseen. More from this author →