The Poetic Reincarnation of Max Ritvo

fourreincarnations-cover-pgw-300rgbweb-2Max Ritvo’s poetry moves from strength to strength: that of knowing image; of a vivid metaphor returned to in new ways again and again; of sharp, wise humor; and of the aside, to speak honestly to the reader. Ritvo’s short career left us the world he deftly articulated in his work. This world included poems in The New Yorker and POETRY, and a sampler in Boston Review, as well as prose and interviews in Huffington Post, Divedapper, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

It’s difficult to experience these poems without knowing that Ritvo is no longer here to read them. He passed away at the age of twenty-five in August of this year; he had lived with cancer since age sixteen. Ritvo made his illness the subject of his work, but managed to explore life and the lives around him, rather than death.

Indeed, Ritvo’s poetry breathes life into all kinds of people: his speaker’s mother, his therapist, his wife, and his ex-girlfriends, who (according to “When I Criticize You, I am Just Trying to Criticize the Universe”) apparently live in the bathroom. These lives intertwine with those of Ritvo’s speaker, calling attention to role of the poetic imagination in a relationship. Ritvo moves across a range of forms from beloved couplets to clipped, compressed lines to willowy hollowed-out lyrics. In “Living It Up” Ritvo gives us what must be described as one of the centers of the book, raising the questions of love and relationships that he persistently inquires about:

          I wish you would let me know
          How difficult it is to love me.

          Then I would know you love me
          beneath all that difficulty.

Ritvo’s couplets suggest logics and symmetries of phrase that keep readers turning his words over and over. So subtle is his ability to be self-reflexive that we often do not see that he is taking us to a new view of himself until we have arrived. In “Black Bulls” Ritvo writers:

          This is the basis
          upon which we seek company:
          I am bad,
          the world is bad.

          Three black bulls stomp the hills of sand
          into blistering glass.

          Their hooves swelter against these
          wrong bells.

          I am so sorry that you have come to this mind of mine.

We, of course, feel much the opposite: delight and interest in coming into Ritvo’s mind through this poetry. The final line reflects on the previous lines without resorting to moral or summary. The poet’s awareness that he has created a place for the reader to reside is a remarkable twist on a poem that shows the hardness we can feel towards ourselves. Though creating a stable linguistic landscape with repeated concerns across the book, Ritvo requires more of us as we are shown different facets of the poet’s personality.

To that end, direct addresses to the reader occur in all kinds of surprising places. Ritvo’s mastery of the aside extends even to his titles. In section 3, these knowing poems reflect on their own meaning. Among them are “Poem About My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid,” “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night,” and “Poem to My Dog, Monday, on Night I Accidentally Ate Meat.” This litany of descriptive titles shows Ritvo to be a poet’s poet, fully aware and ready to show us his process. He opens back doors to demonstrate how his work is put together and seals the edges with his formula for glue. It is these moves that will build Ritvo’s legacy as a poet, as he does not simply hold up to analysis or invite us to close reading, but performs his own footnotes.

In “Poem in Which My Shrink Is a Little Boy,” Ritvo writes:

          Our chats are as important to God
          as your thalamus is to you.
          He can’t risk us not
          analyzing one another forever–
          he might have a seizure.

Funny and irreverent, Ritvo turns a potentially humorous situation into a poignant reflection. The sorrows of this book require the real and often silly conclusions the poet draws. This refusal to make even the absurd seem unimportant was also a theme in Ritvo’s first chapbook, AEONS, surfacing again in this collection. Yet Ritvo’s approach seems bolder here, particularly in moments like the one that follows the absurd humor of “Stalking My Ex-Girlfriend in a Pasture.” The speaker’s mind splits (rather than a body splitting) after his girlfriend “described an orgasm/so imaginatively that I longed to be her.”

For me, the highlight of the Four Incarnations is “Lyric Complicity for One,” which begins with the speaker’s wish to become one with the beloved, but then re-directs our interest to another matter, which, in Ritvo’s remarkable circle of poetics, will return to his initial subject. This means that while we may enjoy the sounds words falling on the bodies, which Ritvo has given us in his poetic world, we are going to see the whole life cycle of those words. Details that at first seem like flourishes become crucial plot elements and ways of returning to the connections across the poet’s world. After establishing the poem’s motive as love poem, the truths we have accepted are abruptly changed, only to return again:

          Instead, imagine a fisherman
          Rubbing hot water on his throat.
          His mother once said
          Gargle hot water when your throat’s tight.
          He can’t remember the word gargle in the memory,
          Only his mother fanning out her fingers as she said it,
          Small, precise, a little wicked.
          So not he gets it wrong, remember the fingers, feeling forlorn.

          Beneath him swim bluefin tuna at fifty miles an hour,
          Fast and invisible as wicked fingers.
          These sea-seams, these black-bodied cloaks of guts,
          Are just as dazed as the thoughts of the fisherman,
          For every thought, a new fish soars
          Right under the anchored boat–
          A lullaby to quiet another lullaby.

This piece give us the sense that Ritvo’s work does not stop with the human experience. It delves beautifully and sensitively into the natural world: blue tuna, koi, pasture animals, and mice. Ritvo even addresses the difficulty of bridging the gap between self and nature. “Poem to My Litter” begins:

         My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way
          that Man’s old genes are in the Beasts.

          My doctors split my tumors up and scattered them
          Into the bones of twelve mice.

Then the poem turns from the philosophy of animal use to Ritvo’s introspection about the meaning of this process:

          I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
          I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,

          but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
          They don’t know they’re named, of course.

          They are like children you’ve traumatized
          And tortured so they won’t visit.

          I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
          Even my suffering is good in part. Sure I swell

          with rage, fear– the stuff that makes you see your tail
          as a bar on the cage. But then the feelings pass.

In this poem, we see the tripartite metaphor is a hallmark of Ritvo’s poetry: a link is made between cancer, the mice, and the prospect of the poet’s children entering the ring. The complex links that Ritvo’s poetics creates will remain part of his innovative and astonishing legacy.

Never failing to wander away, Ritvo is always tracking himself, his course made clear for us by the far-off place he has wandered to. With this poet’s hand on the rudder you can be sure that every small detail will be revisited. Indeed, as meaning accumulates, Ritvo satisfies our poetic wish that we may connect to that which is not immediately accessible.
Hannah Star Rogers received her Ph.D. at Cornell University. She teaches at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. She has received the Djerassi Artist Residency in Woodside, CA, both the Everglades and Acadia National Park Service writing residencies, and the ArtHub International Artist Residency in Kingman, AZ.