Spring 2017, Volume 21

Four Reincarnations By Max Ritvo

Review by Bill Neumire

Four Reincarnations, Max Ritvo’s first and last full-length poetry collection, is as much about Ritvo as it is about the poems. Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma when he was 16 and died this year at 25, though in the interim he managed to graduate from Yale and Columbia, get married, and become a stand-up comic. As a result of Ritvo’s briefly brilliant life, this book is the first I’ve ever read for which I’m as eager to discuss the dedication and acknowledgments pages as I am the actual poems. For six pages, Ritvo effusively and affectionately thanks those he’s loved and felt connected to in prose plain and powerful in its sincerity. One section goes like this: “I think heaven is just an eternity of us telling one another jokes. Dad, you kept my metaphors clear and simple, and kept my mind skeptical but never cynical, and always treated my small emotions with respect, since they were emotions. This is all I think good poetry is.” Indeed, one of the refreshing elements of this book is its unapologetic emotions and the way they trump any kind of striving for cleverness. Several poems address the speaker’s (a thinly veiled Ritvo) lover with lines like, “[l]istening to you makes me naked” (13) or this more vulnerable moment from ‘Living It Up’:

                         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.

The poet, with clear New York School methodology, seems to view autobiography as a form of personal responsibility, an interesting alternative response to New York School poets and memoirists who revel in the anxieties and ethics of rendering personal experience, and thus “incriminating” relations. Ritvo’s speaker’s stance? “This autobiographical moment. // I must take full responsibility” (69).

I suppose not surprisingly for a cancer patient, Ritvo’s images and motifs often emanate from the body. His extensive experience with doctors is clear, as in this section from ‘Stalking My Ex-Girlfriend in a Pasture’:

                        I refuse the doctor’s fizzy tincture
                        because each bubble is me
                        until it pops on my tongue
                        and then it’s you.

The speaker’s sense of the body becomes increasingly complex and transcendent, as in this reflection on snow:

                        We call it snow
                        when the parts of God

                        too small to bear, contest our bodies
                        for the possession of our smallest sensations (67).

Ritvo’s aged-early experience extends to his view of other living things around him, as in this pensive observation from ‘For Crow’: “Black blurs the eyes of crows as they grow old” (23). Frequently, the speaker addresses his beloved with sensual, somatic lines like “Your bones when I bite too deep / are the phone’s wires, / full of voice, blue marrow” (37). While ​at Yale, the poet joined an experimental comedy group called His Majesty, the Baby,​ and at the end, at the cancer patient’s lowest moments, he reverts to his core belief in laughter, the body’s joy: “When the breath starts to be ragged, / tickle me, my deepest beloveds— / so that the raggedness becomes confused” (70).

Though sometimes sentimental and emotional, Ritvo’s poems do possess a peculiarly unpredictable vision: his metaphors and images swerve in unique directions, pulling wildly disparate elements together, wielding metaphor as a means for illuminating connections in an Alan-Watts- ‘we-are-the-universe-experiencing-itself’ manner. He describes “Eyes like blisters / leaking fondness” (4) and his mind “like a black glove / you mistake for a man / in the middle of a blizzard” (7). He also seems to equate or bring together people and natural phenomenon in lines like “[h]er brain / moans chilly / and low, like lightning that wants to stay” (61) and “I will slip behind your poodle eyes / loading myself like a cartridge of light” (45).

The dedication page for ​Four Reincarnations ​reads, “to my fathers, to my sisters, to my nephew, / to my teachers, to my friends, to my exes, / to my shrinks, and to my doctors,” a fortuitously Whitmanian, and it turns out Ritvoian, gesture toward inclusion, connection, embrace, and democratic spirit. In fact, in his constant struggle to pin down impossible ideas such as Death, God, Heaven, and Joy, he finds “the secret to making people happy (...) is that I am the people!” (26). It’s fitting that for Ritvo, the answer to a difficult question--how does one achieve joy?--is simple and communal. All of these poems reveal Ritvo’s perspective on death, and thereby on life: that meaning resides in relationships with others, and at times with nature: “Winter, by being so white, / is
trying to talk to me--” (49). At other times, this impulse is utterly erotic: “She described an orgasm / So imaginatively that I longed to become her.” (28) And at times it’s a dark yet primal and undeniable manifestation:

                        That night the child dreams
                        he’s inside the box.
                        It’s burning hot, the heat coming
                        from bugs and worms
                        raping and devouring one another (59).

But in the end, God and heaven are about our potential as a human community, as “the world’s voices fire into a God” (38). This collection is most certainly written in the voice of a young poet who is, ironically, very old in his proximity to death. This position inevitably leads to some aphoristic assertions, some kernels of wisdom left behind for those of us with more time to employ them. Thus, we get gems like this section from ‘Poem to my Litter’:

                        I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
                        Even my suffering is good, in part.
                        And if a whole lot
                        of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace.
                        Which is what we want. Trust me.

“All of death is right here” (58) the speaker informs us, and “I know this isn’t the heaven we wanted. / What ever is?” (12). Ritvo is quite explicit in addressing a biblical God, alluding, in one instance to “Enoch [who] has written / we are made in His image / but God may have many images” (64).

Laughter, love, and curiosity permeate these poems about death. In his acknowledgments manifesto, the poet says, “I hope that art is an act of unconditional love.” I don’t know about all art, but Ritvo’s affectionate, tender, and final collection certainly stands as evidence that of such a philosophy.




Max Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote
Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo's poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Divedapper, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.