Bough Down, artist Karen Green's collection of poems and collages of her grief after her husband's suicide, is being hailed as a classic
Artist Karen Green's meditation on grief following the suicide of her husband, the author David Foster Wallace, is drawing laudatory reviews in America, where it has been described as "an astonishment" and an "instant classic".
Bough Down is a collection of prose poems interspersed with small collages, in which Green charts her "passage through grief", said small US publisher Siglo Press, which released the book earlier this spring. Green's husband Wallace, best known for the novel Infinite Jest, committed suicide at home in 2008, and was found by Green.
"I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down," she writes in Bough Down. "I keep hearing that sound." Disturbed by the sentimentality of funerals, she 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."
And later, about how it feels to be in the public eye following her famous husband's death: "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."
An extract in Bomb magazine of Green's writing:
"Home is where I take up such a tiny portion of the memory foam; home is a splintered word. His pillow is a sweat-stained map of an escape plot, also a map of love's dear abandon. (When did he give way, at which breath?) Forgiveness may mean retroactively abandoning the pillow and abandoning the photograph of someone with curious eyes, kissing my toes, poolside. I paint my toes Big Apple Red. I don't know what to do about the shock of red nails on clean, white tiles except get used to it. (And when he gave way, was there room for feelings or the words for feelings?) While I brush my teeth, I can see him in my periphery at the other sink. The outline of him lulls and stings. (And when he gave way, was it the end or the beginning of suffering?) I draw his profile near, I make him brush his teeth with me, he spits and makes a mess. I could love another face, but why?"
Reviews in the US have been slow to trickle in, but the small book is beginning to draw attention. "Ms Green turns out to be a profoundly good writer: Bough Down is lovely, smart and funny, in addition to being brutally clear and sad," writes the Wall Street Journal. "Perhaps most impressive about Bough Down is that, despite the poetic pitch of its language, it refuses to poeticize its subject. It does not resolve into pure despondency, on the one hand, or redemptive hope, on the other. Instead, Ms Green registers the complexity of grief and in the process makes something beautiful out of the saddest stuff in the world."
The Los Angeles Review of Books calls it "an astonishment", with reviewer and poet Maggie Nelson describing it as "one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I've read".
"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," said Nelson.
And in the Los Angeles Times last week, Jacob Silverman called it "mournful and a touch angry but also generous of heart and even, in rare moments, lightly comic".
He went on to quote Green's observation that "there is the thing itself, and then there is the predicament of its cavity". "This book doesn't fill that cavity (what can?). It only traces its contours – powerfully, gorgeously," writes Silverman.