What David Foster Wallace’s Widow, Karen Green, Teaches Us About Art and Grief

Karen Green’s Bough Down is a hauntingly beautiful, mixed media meditation on grief.


Since David Foster Wallace’s suicide by hanging 5 years ago, his works–and his bandana-ed persona–have been canonized. Highly devoted fans have greeted every posthumous publication like the Beatles arriving at JFK. But there was flesh and blood left behind when DFW died: his grieving parents; his devastated wife–Karen Green, a shockingly talented artist in her own right. Green’s first book, Bough Down, is full of that beating life. It’s a combination of free-form poems and collages, and though she never mentions Wallace by name, it is one of the best and truest expressions of grief I’ve ever read.


Green’s writing is an almost three-dimensional experience, since it’s brimming with colors and sounds. She recalls the shade of her unnamed lover’s nipples, the red door of their home, and the whiteness of his teeth when he was institutionalized for depression. The sounds are even more evocative: “the musical clackety sound of pills being poured into the hand,” the packing tape that makes a screaming sound to take her husband’s possessions away, and most brutally, “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound.”

The fever dream quality of Green’s poetry is what makes it so affecting. Grief is often felt in horrifying unreal waves, and she captures that. She also captures–and there’s no way to put this without sounding precious–humanity. Bough Down is about sex and love and death and family. There was one passage in particular that floored me, with its aggressive humanity, about the anniversary of Wallace’s death:

September again and
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.

Her words aren’t necessarily matched up with the collages interspersed throughout the text, but it doesn’t really matter. It forms a cohesive experience for the reader, and it marks Green’s entry into the literary world. Green teaches us that though dark grief may define periods of our lives, works of true beauty can grow from them. Or as Green puts it, “You are an oil spill, but from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque.”

[Images © Karen Green, Siglio, 2013.]

About the author

Jessica Grose is a regular contributor to Co.Create. She is a freelance writer and editor who writes about culture, women's issues, family and grizzly bears