The Believer Poetry Award

The Ninth Annual—Hereby Presented To

Bough Down by Karen Green

Karen Green’s raw, elegant first book—a mixture of verse para­graphs, images of miniature mixed-media collages (Green is also a visual artist), and blank pages—is a moving portrait of love, marriage, the untimely death of a spouse, the poet’s ensuing grief, and the marriage that still, somehow, remains. One of the most intimate and effective extended elegies to be published in recent years (joining such notable works as Anne Carson’s Nox and Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index), Bough Down is also a brilliant case study in psycho-emotional realism: in this case, the way that psychological rupture affects the very experience of experience, and the role of language in finding one’s way back to normalcy.

The book’s perspective seems to be that of a child, that of someone suddenly struck with amnesia or waking from a coma, or that of someone witnessing life from above—each viewpoint overlapping with the others, drifting, slipping. Such, Green reveals, are the dérèglements that arise from the trauma of grief. Muted suffering is interrupted by strange jolts of levity; recuperative narcissism gives way to depersonalization; and hypersensitivity is balanced by chill, almost reportorial objectivity. The collection gracefully navigates these poles, all the while refusing an inauthentic synthesis. Taking place in such charged territory, the poet’s linguistic negotiations come to feel, by the end, like the navigations of psychic survival—which is to say that in Green’s hands, style and survival meld.

Often the result is an awareness reduced to the most rudimentary levels of perception: “Intake form, lab coat, cotton swab, scent of magnolia.” Green frequently reveals the raw data of consciousness: simple identification, affirmation. The precise, toneless observations act both as ballasts to the emotional weight of the material and as cognitive footholds—the poet trying, colloquially, “to get a grip,” to regain traction in her bid to reenter the normal flow of life. Together with the natural ease of Green’s writing, the effect can make the book feel almost unstyled.

And yet in these poems we also seem to witness something like the birth of poetry—the impulse to grow from simple perception into form, from accumulated structures of sense into symbolic meaning. “Disposable paper mask,” the above passage continues, “tennis shoe, crumpled note to self with best/worst-case list of questions, the accusatory white moon of an index finger.”

And on the following page: “The garden was your idea, and I bring you back there… I offer you a carrot the size of a toothpick. It tastes exactly like a carrot, only more so.” At all junctures, Green’s writing shows life exceeding expectations—exceeding sense—because it exceeds thought. Bough Down is a breathtaking achievement.

An Excerpt from Page Eight of Bough Down

June, black
Does it begin like this?
The mouth of the Volvo opens to reveal something coiled: cotton paisley affixed to the garden hose with electrical tape. Your simulated overnight bag reeks of American Spirits, a few fuzzy pills caught in the seams. On the back burner, a mercury-filled tooth crumbles. Garden ants draw vibrating, teeming stripes up and down the artichoke stalks. The support guys are in the thick of the starless forest; they catch and release. They call the crows blackbirds. The kind black dog sighs on my shin, sighs on my thigh, relieved and relieved, forever home. Sharpie, ink, humor, hole. Fat windows spin chaos on the patio, their thoracic hourglasses graphic red flags. Here is fruit for the crows, but that will come later.

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