BURIED ALIVE: A TO-DO LIST
by Carole Bernstein
Hanging Loose Press, 80 pages.
reviewed by Claire Oleson
From satirizing the mechanics of the American workplace to discovering motherly devotion in the myth of Persephone, Carole Bernstein’s third poetry collection Buried Alive: A To-Do List takes readers through caves and coffins alike, showing what living things still kick inside the previously presumed-dead.
The book follows a loose chronology, drawing from glimpses of her living to form the picture of a complete and complicated life. Bernstein is unafraid in her direct examinations of familial sexual abuse, injury and aging, and the unfolding joys and strains of motherhood in clear, occasionally very casual language. This book trusts its reader with image and metaphor but also consciously stays married to narrative; a majority of the poems in Buried Alive: A To-Do List navigate by chronology, desiring to approach the terrifying and mundane with equal clarity.
Before the life of the speaker unfolds, the second poem and the titular piece of the book takes us to her coffin. In “Buried Alive: A To-Do List,” we see the speaker contend with waking up buried alive, a circumstance which prompts them to list tips for enduring their own situation. The tone in this poem resembles that of many others in the book, tackling both a morbid humor and a clear horror. In this voice, the buried-alive speaker advises themselves to:
Calculate the gravid mass of Amalthea, a moon of Jupiter.
Order a pizza using reverse osmosis.
Pretend a demon is fucking you.
Beg for your mommy, and everyone’s mommy,
even though you’re over fifty.
Here, and throughout the collection, there is a haunting synthesization of humor and fear. Nothing can really be done in this coffin besides wait, but this doesn’t stop worlds of thought from blooming in the speaker’s mind. The audience is invited to “Try to see the puckered satin lip-like folds/ inches above your face,/ you just know it’s pink and livid, like a fleshy diseased vagina.” The folded insides of the coffin itself may be static, but the lines that detail them are anything but. The poem moves from genitalia to contemplations of the post-mortem to being “relieved that you can stop worrying/ about being buried alive someday.” Inside horror, we are at least given one less thing to worry about.
Mirroring the oxymoronic title, the poem ends with an exhibition of both life and death. The entombed woman remembers a day in winter when she bought a newspaper for an elderly man who was incredibly grateful. She closes her eyes and remembers the cold day, remarking “Already you can see your breath.” The reader is left on this exhale of warm breath in chilled air, a sign of living and a possible stand-in for a last breath, clever in its ability to be read as both. The sardonic and sincere share these stanzas, flooding a single coffin.
The book returns to the subterranean in “The Visit” where “a flashlight rolls over the walls of a cave” that proves to be a pregnant uterus. The fetus’s presence is likened to newly-discovered cave-drawings as the sonogram presents its “grainy screen” “this tiny, blurry, leaping bison or bear.” The ambiguity of the screen, the touring of the uterus as a container for life, and the lack of clarity of what the life itself actually looks like all gesture back to titular poem. Though there is a clear and bright hopefulness in this discovery, this “first art we know” in a body that was thought infertile in the poem immediately prior to “The Visit.” Still, this life emerges in conversation with the deaths around it. The cave and the coffin each show signs of the living and the departed, neither simply houses one or the other, and in this way Bernstein complicates the funeral and the delivery room in the same breath.
Despite its regular use of sarcasm and its deployment of humor to both survive and illuminate the world it inhabits, Buried Alive: A To-Do List demonstrates a heartfelt love for the living. This love is made clearer and better for its confrontations with death, as is seen in “Pumpkin,” a poem where a pet cat being euthanized because
A thing in her head was pressing on her brain,
the little cat-brain that had known me,
kept her body warm, observed the rain,
There is immense tenderness held in this small space where a sudden rhyme brightens the otherwise dismal lines. This rhyme emerges without an established rhyme-scheme, softly hinging a defunct neurology to the weather. Embracing this unexpected whimsy, Bernstein’s following tercets occasionally, but do not always, rhyme while showing the death of this cat that cradled knowing of its owner in its brain. The emergency eventually calms and “Something at some point loosened, breathed.” The reader knows in the given context that this is a death, but Bernstein has already shown us breathing both ending and starting lives, and like the unexpected rhymes scattered without clear pattern, there is a soft glow of unpredictability offered in this detail.
Again demonstrating a link rather than a division between living and dying, Bernstein offers another sort of softness in “Domestic Interiors.” The speaker folds worn undershirts which are “soft as silk, soft as nothing” as
Our daughter, a small bundled person deposited carefully on the
bed while I folded laundry—too young to even roll, she lay,
shifted, breathed, sighed, looked at the ceiling fixture, heard the
light report of the clothes shaken out, the gentle thud of
Alongside the laundry, the infant is rendered almost another object, a bundle of something that invites touch. Possessing a texture close to shirts owned for years, the newborn lies still until the mother conjures her as a young adult, iterating “I must not keep her.” At once a baby soft among soft objects and “now a woman in boots, long brown hair and a big bag of books,” the child is simultaneously possessable and untouchable. The mother implores the shirts, asking if they remember the baby. This longing question also works to ask the audience: what can be held? Bernstein has shown us life in containers, life in an organ and life a casket that resembles the genitalia that typically leads to that same organ, but neither place can hold that life indefinitely. The softness that this book tours, from the satin interior of the coffin to the bundled worn clothing on the bed, are textures Bernstein makes both deeply inviting to caress and legibly temporary.
Carole Bernstein’s Buried Alive: A To-Do List encourages dying and living, newness and wornness, to share a sensation under the same hands, in the same lines. These pieces are not delineations between the sensations of loss and life, but rather, they are sites for their coexistence. From trauma to satire to placing a toy unicorn on your desk at work to stave off isolation and nihilism, Bernstein’s poems showcase something worth laughing at and something worth crying over, and do so, critically, at the same time.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s a 2019 grad of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize. Contact her by email.