Karen Green’s Bough Down is a profoundly emotional experience. In terms of form, it bridges the gap between the prose poem and the lyric essay, with photographic snippets of documents enclosed between. This makes it feel like a mystery story, and in some ways, it is, but without any of the glamour that usually accompanies such stories. Instead, it works through, and situates itself in, the suicide of the narrator’s husband. It blurs the boundaries of reality and illusion as the narrator takes different types of medications left behind by her husband and now prescribed by her doctor, as she muses over different characters (husband, doctor, jazz lady, doppelgänger support guys, her dogs) and posts documents that only have snippets of understanding, such as, “In spite of the / cold I will rise, I will bathe, / I dreamed that I / found the phrase to every thought, / Among the smoke and fog / cloudshadow and nightshadow, / By a route obscure and / veiled in rain / Whose woods these I think I know” (p. 179).
This last line is the first line of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in which, depending on the interpretation, the speaker stops by the woods and considers walking into them and leaving his world behind. This poem has profound suicidal undertones, and yet, the speaker decides to keep going on his way rather than stop in the forest. Similar to such epistemological studies that many have cited to Robert Frost, Bough Down has its own working epistemology, as it asks hordes of questions, not only about why the narrator’s husband committed suicide, but why are we here, what does this all matter, what is the difference between reality and fantasy anyway? “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” (p. 130). Is this real? We don’t know.
One of the most profoundly emotional moments in this book, for me, is when the narrator spends time with her husband’s parents. She writes, “I take your parents to the lighthouse, I do. There is nothing but September fog to cover our shame, and your father laughs just like you, at the opacity, I want to eat the laugh, I want to rub it on my chest like camphor, I want to make a sound tattoo. I also want to bash these two small people together and see if a collision of DNA will give me my life back. Last night we had a lightning storm, unprecedented. It scared me to think about who might be conducting it” (p. 120). Though these lines had no enjambment, and were written in the style of prose poem, they broke me.
This book, though, is more than a heart-wrenching experience. It brings to our attention the dark spaces of depression and the struggles accompanying the family members of those affected. The narrator questions herself frequently for her choice to leave the house on the day her husband committed suicide: “I’m coming, wait for me. I’m sorry I missed your call. I have to make a stop to drop off paperwork. I cut my hand and the papers are bloody. I tell the life insurance guy, it’s not what you think” (p. 114). As usual, it isn’t her fault for leaving that day, but she feels tormented by the decision anyhow.
After reading the last page of this book and closing it, I said to myself, “this book should never have been written.” All day I repeated to myself, “this book should never have been written.” And I have sort of reached a different conclusion now. It has happened, and has been written down, and it’s vain and selfish to cling to this notion. Instead, I will say, read this book. Read it and position yourself in its valleys, feel its most deserted sadnesses and darknesses run through you. There is nothing glamorous about this mystery, asking why loved ones leave us and what we could have done to change it and where they are now. There is only pain and brokenness. This book allows us to feel through the process of grieving that which we may (or may not) understand, and hopefully, prayerfully, asking that it won’t happen to those loved ones nearest us. We also ought to carefully watch out for those around us and spread understanding and awareness about depression and other mental illnesses.
In closing, I will leave off with one last quote from this book, a snippet from one of the documents the narrator includes: “Bring me Coffee / oranges hashish / Bring me a song like / Forgetting” (p. 167).