Grief’s Dark Universe: The Art of Fado in A Brief History of Yes and Bough Down

A’Dora Phillips

A Brief History of Yes. By Micheline Aharonian Marcom. London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. 98 pages. $14.00.

Bough Down. By Karen Green. Los Angeles, CA: Siglio, 2013. 188 pages, illustrated. $36.00.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

This is what I’ve learned about fado since two recently published books have taken hold of me—Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel A Brief History of Yes and Karen Green’s memoir Bough Down. Fado is a Portuguese musical genre whose name derives from the Latin fatum, destiny or fate. It is associated with the Portuguese word soudade, which has no equivalent in English, but is often translated as longing or nostalgia. Fado is the beautiful Cristina Branco barely visible on a dark stage, her head back and eyes closed for nearly an entire concert. Fado is the unbearable repetition of metal guitar strings in slow acceleration as you wait for Amália Rodrigues to take the stage in a crepe gown. She lifts her arms and begins to sing at the age of sixty-seven like a child seeking to keep away the dark.

Traditionally, the fadist inhabits as their subject lost love, singing with open emotion about the wounds we too have but could not imagine sharing in public: how we were not loved in return, how we fantasize about suicide or revenge. And so it is most obviously that A Brief History of Yes and Bough Down evoke fado—A Brief History explicitly so—in that both take as their starting point women succumbing to the near madness that can follow doomed love. In A Brief History, the forty-year-old Maria is cast away by her lover because he fails to identify with the weight of her melancholy and her drive to explore childhood suffering. Maria sees their relationship as an opportunity for the two of them to come together and heal, whereas her lover wants only “a playful and happy girl to sleep with and to love.” In Bough Down, on the other hand, Green is left abandoned and traumatized by her husband when he commits suicide.

In some ways it may seem unjust—even inappropriate—to consider in parallel Marcom’s fictional exploration of loss and Green’s real-life experience, except that the books bear many uncanny similarities. In both books, the authors spiral around the traumatic experience and sound loss’s undulating waves of absence and presence, of disbelief and surrender, of sorrow and anger, of sense and senselessness. In the fado tradition, both authors disclose—in style, as well as content—the shocking acts and feelings we typically keep to ourselves when we grieve. But also in the fadist tradition—where musicians perform in spaces so dark they can barely be seen—both authors speak from the territory of grief in a way that leaves much concealed.

Significantly, for instance, Green never mentions that her husband was the famous author David Foster Wallace, and, though many readers will surely know this fact, that he goes unnamed within the context of her work calls attention to itself and by extension, to Green’s mode of address. As you read Bough Down you don’t have the feeling that Green has written her book for you but that she is carrying on an essentially private conversation with her closest confidantes, which includes herself and, tragically, her deceased husband. It makes no sense for her to mention his name, then, since she is not speaking to us about him but to him of herself, to herself of him: “In early summer, I take one of your blue pills. . . . The garden was your idea, and I bring you back here.” As audience to this book, the reader fulfills the ancient role of eavesdropper, spectator, witness to selective shards of a grief-shattered world. In Green’s book, as well as Marcom’s, cryptic images and allusions, obscured references, frequent gaps between passages, incomplete thoughts, and the occasional incomplete sentence serve to further emphasize our role. These fractured elements also suggest that the shards disclosed to us are all that is left to the bereaved in the moment of expression—a plague of repetitive thoughts, feelings, and images. Between what is disclosed and what is withheld, we sense the possibilities and limits of written communication.

 

For Marcom, who has written about trauma before in her trilogy about the Armenian massacre and Guatemalan Civil War, A Brief History of Yes is new territory. Although the protagonist Maria is from Portugal and identifies herself as an exile, her trauma is not historical but personal. The book is slender, yet dense with language of a high register. Maria’s grieving process is essentially delineated in four distinct sections made up of numbered passages averaging a page or two in length. In part one, we are introduced to the rhythms and qualities of Maria’s love affair as the relationship moves inexorably toward its end: the lover “from the cold lands where the fighting is done below ground, where cold winds howl on the lowest rungs of sound”; Maria in the well she has retreated to since childhood, when she sought to escape from an abusive father, a place “where language does not arrive.” In the second section, Maria broods over her old lover, obsessively returning in her own mind to his rejection of her: “I am not in-love with you, Mariazinha . . . I don’t want you here any longer. Please give me back the key to my apartment.” Her visceral sense of loss and humiliation leads to the novel’s third movement, when Maria imagines flinging herself from a cliff, though she stops herself from doing so because she would “most likely not die . . . just injure [her]self terribly . . . and look forever terrible afterwards.” This proves to be a healing crisis, as it were, and in the final section, as Maria begins to accept her lover’s “death,” she reflects on how fado music expresses what cannot otherwise be articulated: “of the love that remains after the beloved has gone . . .”; “of . . . the shock and anger and then grief black as the sea . . . and forgetting.”

The conventional progression of Marcom’s narrative is not always immediately evident, however, since Marcom sucks her readers into a world of grief, where the minor events of the dramatic present—Maria reading in a café, or picking her son up at school, or taking photographs of herself “to see herself better”—are suffused and subsumed by Maria’s recursive memories of her childhood in Portugal and her year-long relationship with her lover. What happens both in the dramatic present and in the past gets told in present tense, which creates a blurred sense of temporal reality and evokes the strange workings of time in the universe of grief. There, remembered encounters and imaginary conversations with the beloved are often more real and immediate than the red maple outside the window or the child who is in her care.

In Marcom’s novel, reality appears more blurred, mysteries more veiled, and the land of grief more convincingly enveloping because her characters are unabashedly archetypal in their presence—not individuals but types playing out timeless human dramas. In the opening line of A Brief History of Yes, the two main characters are introduced as “the two lovers.” In a suggestive echo of Wallace’s unnameableness in Green’s Bough Down, the male lover in A Brief History remains simply “the lover” throughout. And, while we do learn Maria’s name, we are also told that “[s]he is called Maria like so many of the women of her generation for the mother of God.” The significance of Maria’s name, then, like the significance of her experience, is that it is the same as everyone else’s.

In the world Marcom has created, where characters are archetypes, the world as it exists is similarly abstracted. Maria is said to be from “a city on the Tagus,” while her lover resides in a “city by a large salt-water bay in America.” Maria has some sort of job, since reference is made to her having taken time off work to recover from surgery (the particulars of which are left vague), but her profession is never named. Indeed, Marcom does not give us many individual features and facts. Instead, she weaves a tapestry of repetitive images and motifs, all of them resonant with mythic potential and relevance: the lover’s chest deformity, the Pietà, a migrating bird, a Japanese maple, a horsy-faced girl.

Marcom seems to suggest that Maria’s loss—anyone’s loss of the beloved—is impersonal and universal. What does Maria do when her lover leaves? She does as most of us would and have: to the exclusion of all other realities, she talks with him in her own mind, considers calling him, fantasizes about him, remembers him.

 

It is time’s altered quality in the world of loss that Green, too, recognizes and acknowledges when she writes in Bough Down: “In real time the seasons summersault…. In real time the Crested Oropendola makes a teardrop-shaped nest in the mountain Immortelle tree during the month it blooms deep orange.”

In a riveting sequence of by turns jagged, crystalline, and inscrutable images; in a tone that ranges from keening to wry; in an indiscriminate maelstrom that sucks the stuff of life (large and small) into its center, Green’s memoir lays out the story of her husband’s suicide and her subsequent journey through grief in one hundred and one vignettes of no longer than a page each. The vignettes, which are like prose poems, are interspersed with blank pages and visual collages that often include text. Most of the collages are too small to allow for detailed examination—only the size of three small postage stamps on the corner of an envelope—but they often seem to echo what is in the vignettes and underscore the impression that what Green is struggling to articulate ultimately eludes her.

The opening vignette presents us with a premonition of danger and death when “the mouth of the Volvo opens to reveal something coiled,” along with subsequent images of “a mercury-filled tooth crumbling” and “fruit for crows” (the first whisper we have of Billie Holiday, whose presence haunts this work, in words borrowed from her song “Strange Fruit”). Vignettes unfold to reveal that something is amiss in the house, as Green pops her husband’s “blue pills” and their dogs’ “golden eyes” track the couple’s movements. Then, the unimaginable: Green returns from a work outing to find her husband’s body; he has hung himself. She cuts him down, calls for help, is interrogated by first responders, organizes a wake, attends memorial services. Over the course of some unspecified amount of time, she ends up in the psychiatric ward where her husband was once a patient, begins to wean herself off meds, starts to date, sells the house they had lived in together, packs up, moves north.

Along the way, there are moments of extraordinary clarity in Green’s telling: as when she notes her neighbors turn away from her after her husband’s suicide; or when she writes, “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound”; or, in answer to the question as to why her husband chose suicide over a return to the psych ward, her chilling observation that, “Um, because he was scared? Because of scrapes on linoleum like underwear mistakes? Because of Agnes, harebrained overseer of the smoking porch, Thursday night karaoke, nebulous fingerprints on Plexiglass, sadistic inclinations fulfilled at minimum wage. . . . Because of caveman implements to the brain, there there . . .”

At these moments, you feel the stony landmarks of Green’s journey through trauma and grief just beneath the surface of what is otherwise a plethora of things remembered and imagined. The dark universe of grief, peopled in Green’s case with ghosts and allegorical figures, some of whom seem to serve as elusive doubles and/or guides to Green in her grief—the jazz lady, the doppelgänger widow, the support guys, Agnes, the tuxedoed birds—does not displace the material world, only colors and shrouds it.

One of the great accomplishments of both of these books is how deftly and deeply they draw us into the world of grief, and how, with equal sureness, they lead us back out. The authors don’t explicitly tell us that time cycles, memories retreat, and life moves on; that you are buffeted less frequently and less fiercely by grief; that you regain a new sense of self, the self after trauma. After all, we wouldn’t believe them if they did. Instead, they show us to the door that opens to the world outside, the world we return to when the fadist stops singing, the world most of us inhabit most of the time. The world where Maria glimpses the specific contours of an “old white lady at the petrol station with black makeup.” The world where, in Green’s closing vignette: “[A] couple buys a painting and they kiss in front of it like teenagers. . . . Another couple made a daughter in the room where we and the bookending dogs had our last nap . . . I can’t help but root for all this perishable human behavior.”

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