“The bed is on fire, and are you laughing?”
With the first line of Max Ritvo’s stunning collection, we are welcomed into a world where sorrow and joy, desire and loss, cannot be untangled. The opening poem, “Living It Up,” is a perfect introduction to the poet’s singular and extraordinary mind:
The springs want to embrace each other
but they’re afraid if they break
their spiral, they will never
be able to hold anyone.
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.
A majority of the poems in Four Reincarnations are written as direct addresses to loved ones. And that, though tragic, feels completely appropriate considering the story behind this incredible body of work: at sixteen, Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer, and after a year of intense treatment and a period of remission, he finished high school and enrolled at Yale. The cancer returned in his senior year, though he was able to finish his degree in 2013, and this Spring, earn an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Max passed away in August 2016, at the age of 25, a month before the release of Four Reincarnations.
Max has left us with a gift of a book. These poems are gorgeous and moving and stranger than I ever could have imagined. Where another poet might have closed himself off, considering his bleak diagnosis, Max’s poems are always open to the world, to the reader. These poems are graceful, beautiful, generous and loving. They are often difficult to witness. Take these lines from “Poem In Which My Shrink Is A Little Boy”:
Things don’t change unless we want them to.
And why would we want to give up
the little things we know,
when we know so little?
These poems transcend a solely emotional reading. Ritvo continually presents surprising images and moments, the tremendous effects of which are difficult to articulate. There is a completely unique and intuitive logic at work here that I’ve never before experienced in poetry. In that opening poem, “Living It Up,” Max takes the bed, an obvious symbol of intimacy, and zooms in like an x-ray, as close as he can, to find an even deeper source of intimacy. He then pulls back: a heartbreaking confession to the beloved, a newly acquired acceptance, the difficult reality of things.
The leaps Ritvo makes, from poem to poem, line to line—even within the line—are extraordinary. “Do you pity my imagination? It will kill you. / My mother will kill you. / She is my imagination” (“To Randal, Crow- Stealer, Lord of the Greenhouse”). The act of imagining features heavily in Four Reincarnations, but so much of the poet’s wondering is made flesh, real.
I have spent weeks with this book and can’t shake the word: reincarnation. I can’t help but think that Ritvo has written himself into an afterlife that is both physically and spiritually manifest. “Where was I expecting death / to take me if everywhere it is / is on earth?” (“The Big Loser”). “I know this isn’t the heaven we wanted. / What ever is?” (“The Watercolor Eulogy”).
The collection often poses its own theories of the afterlife, without relying on religion or myth, but rather playfulness, youthful exuberance and possibility, even in the face of the great unknown. Consider these lines from, “Poem to My Dog, Monday, one Night I accidentally Ate Meat”:
I will live in your small ecstatic brain
and take your life,
and you can take mine,
and we won’t give our lives to cancer,
but to each other.
Mercy and tenderness pour forth from these poems as well as sorrow, even anger, at times. How could it not? The defining event of these poems is so complex, it is a wonder it doesn’t overwhelm the collection. Ritvo never courts pity, only genuine connection. No one could have written these poems besides Max Ritvo. His voice is unlike any other. In “Hi, Melissa,” he writes, “I have spoken to you of heaven— / I simply meant the eyes are suns that see.”
This review by Michael Dhyne appears in print in Meridian 38, Winter 2017
Four Reincarnations is published by Milkweed Editions