The first line of the first poem of Max Ritvo’s debut poetry collection Four Reincarnations begins with a loud and threatening announcement: “The bed is on fire,” then the speaker asks, “and are you laughing?” Here Ritvo invites us to simultaneously accept horror and humor.
The rest of this poem, cheekily titled “Living it Up,” unfolds with authority through a series of subjunctive utterances that include candid expressions of fantasy (“I wish you would…”), conditional statements about a somehow-certain future (“they will never / be able to hold anyone”), and gauzy descriptions of air as an “other child.” At first glance, it may be tempting to dismiss the work as ironic. But how is it that the future and the world of the imagination could be expressed so absolutely? How is it that anyone could laugh amidst the flames?
Questions like these ascend quickly to the surface throughout Ritvo’s dazzling book—precisely as he intends them to. The four reincarnations—or stages of “presence” (a word that I prefer to “life” in the context of Ritvo’s nuanced project)—offer a refractory picture of the mind’s concurrent preoccupations, and their complicated relationships with the body. Each of the four reincarnations is a distinct section that doesn’t move through linear time. In the book’s world, we move from the creation of self-awareness in Section 1’s “The Curve”—”X realized all animal bodies were like this, so it made language”—to the dramas of love, grief, and revenge a more petulant voice delivers throughout Section 2, which contains the brilliantly titled poem, “Stalking My Ex-Girlfriend in a Pasture.” The third reincarnation captures a stronger sense of tenderness, vulnerability, and acceptance of suffering (“Poem About My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid”), while the final dream-like section explores an array of possibilities for death. Death, too, bears potential for comedy and absurdity in this world. “Second Dream” portrays a dying Ritvo talking to his friend Shon, who prophetically reveals that Ritvo’s future will involve marrying flowers.
As an adolescent, Ritvo was diagnosed with a rare and terminal pediatric cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma; when recurrent, the cancer has a five-year survival rate in less than ten-percent of diagnosed patients. For those of us who knew Ritvo before his death on August 23, 2016, we also knew that he had an idiosyncratic and curious attitude toward suffering in his poems, prose, and comedy work, as well as in everyday conversations with everyone he encountered.
Ritvo’s poems reveal that he cultivated an interest in his relationship to suffering, and that he (unsurprisingly) engaged in an ongoing inner-dialogue about the potential meanings of death. His poems explore everything from bodily functions (“Why do you shit so much—is it cancer or anxiety?” he asks rhetorically in “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe”), to possibilities for the afterlife (Ritvo’s therapist is reincarnated in the whimsical “Poem in Which My Shrink Is a Little Boy”) to tactile and direct descriptions of cancer treatment (“I awoke on a table with a blue cylinder pressed to my neck” from the poem “Radiation in New Jersey, Convalescence in New York” comes most readily to mind.)
Ritvo conducts his explorations of suffering and death both bombastically and subtly, the volume and tone of the poems modulating seamlessly between urgent declarations and soft whispers. “I wish you would let me know / how difficult it is to love me,” Ritvo admits to an implied lover in “Living it Up.” This wish does not appear to be fueled by shame or guilt, but rather reflects a consistent impulse in Ritvo’s poetry to express his existential restlessness with confidence and clarity, painful as it may be, such that even the most bizarre images are rendered crystalline in their realism, the most tragic utterances ecstatic in their self-assurance.
I would not, however, call Ritvo and his poems “inspiring,” “courageous,” “admirable” or any of the other words often used to describe cancer-fighters, especially those considered “too young” to leave us. But clearly there is something intoxicating about Ritvo’s attitude and voice toward his primary predicament—the constant negotiation between physical suffering, emotional balance, love, loss, grief, fear, laughter, and absurdity.
Perhaps this is because we are wired to turn away from suffering—as a species, we have adapted a mechanism that neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired instinct to look out for threats (internal or external), and to find some way to run away from them unscathed. We’ve evolved to enact this mechanism for psychological threats as much as physical ones—none of us are unfamiliar with the age-old tricks of denial, addiction, silence, and displacement. The list goes on. And yet Ritvo’s poems in Four Reincarnations defy this norm, which is why I believe they are so haunting, exquisite, gentle, grotesque, erotic, angry, hilarious, and devastating all at once—even to non-poetry readers. Despite Ritvo’s intensely unique style and voice, the book contains echoes of John Berryman’s whimsy and interest in language-as-invention, Wallace Stevens’s absurdist renderings of deep metaphysical and aesthetic questions, and James Wright’s crushing ability to hold space for polarized emotions like hate and adoration, plus their delicate contingencies, in short meditative lyrics.
For how successful the book is in fulfilling clearly “poetic” ambitions, it also reads to me as a manifesto, in part, on how to suffer well. In “Poem to My Litter,” Ritvo delivers a loving direct address to the litter of research mice that had been injected with cloned cells from his own tumors—an experiment doctors implemented to observe how the mice responded to different chemo therapies. The poem is one of several in the collection that uses its title as a dedication (“Poem to…”), and presents an unnerving and endearing model for how any of us might reframe our relationship to dread, fear, sickness, death—or symbols thereof that we encounter in daily life.
Ritvo’s candor in this poem is both a source of disturbance and stability, as we listen to him narrate this surreal scenario with absolute acceptance: ”My doctors split my tumors up and scattered them / into the bones of twelve mice. We give / the mice poisons I might, in the future, want / for myself.” Then, Ritvo steps into a paternal role, identifying with his mice such that there is almost ferocity in his compassion: “I want my mice to be just like me,” he admits, “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.” The result is a piercing, hard-to-sit-with feeling of tenderness. There is profound agony here, as well as profound acceptance, and yet any sense of the poem-as-instruction is absent. Instead, it is vulnerable, confessional, loving, intimate. And it makes me, too, want to be just like Max.
Here and throughout the book, Ritvo’s sound is calm and conversational, the anxiety of his subject matter off-set by the relaxed and polished nature of his line. Ritvo, though, knows that his acceptance of suffering is unsettling. In the devastating final line of “Black Bulls,” which closes the book’s first section, Ritvo goes so far as to apologize to his reader: “I am so sorry you have come to this mind of mine.” In the world of Four Reincarnations, there is no way around suffering, and we are asked to find comfort in the absolute certainty of discomfort. Surely, we won’t accept Ritvo’s apology. Access to this mind is what enables us to identify with the force of discovery that propels the poet’s own movement forward. The four distinct sections of the book reflect this because they do not conform to the conventional progressions of introduction to conclusion or love to hate to acceptance. The sections, instead, march along as they do because they are informed by the constant dynamism of discovery.
Ritvo embeds his commitment to discovery in the very form of his poems. In “To Randal, Crow-Stealer, Lord of the Greenhouse,” Ritvo addresses us with unprecedented attitude: “Do you pity my imagination? It will kill you. / My mother will kill you. / She is my imagination.” Ritvo’s very palpable process of discovery provides a helpful diagram of the collections poetics (for lack of a better term). We are in a world in which the poet can subvert textbook-deductive logic to show that imagination can be lethal, and that the imagination is the source of creation and nourishment—symbolized by the “mother” figure. The process of discovery—the work of the imagination—is a circle. There is no clear start or stop, and the movement itself demands us simply to engage in presence for what is.
It’s not coincidental that such a statement bears resemblance to Buddhist principles; after all, Ritvo’s own take on suffering (as well as his formal tendency toward circularity) shares basic ideas with Zen Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. To provide a butchered summary: to live is to suffer, attachment is the cause of suffering, the end of suffering is possible, and can be achieved through presence. In “Snow Angels,” one of the book’s final poems, he writes, “The snow brings suffering to the only thing small enough / to have lived peaceably next to suffering.” In a way, Ritvo’s whole project is an exploratory quest for truth, for peace, for the end of suffering amidst so much of it.
Thus Four Reincarnations reveals the necessity of representation (poetry, in this case) to enact and offer experiences of presence. Ritvo, whose every day was consumed by a physical battle with cancer, uses his own drive toward creation to bring us a world in which presence—life—can be far more flexible, rich, ample and expansive. He shows us—rather than tells—the truth of the imagination, the audacious and incarnate presence that begins to breathe off the page.
In “Universe Where We Weren’t Artists,” the tightly enjambed lyric that closes the collection, we encounter more images of finality: gun-holes, glass lenses, “a cuff of hard air.” This is the poem where Ritvo “will rest,” where he falls “down in the white mud,” and his “breath starts to be ragged.” All the while, melancholy and finality are punctured by Ritvo’s characteristically wise sense of humor: Together, “We look up to / the hilarious moon” and follow Ritvo’s final instruction—”tickle me”—so that death may coexist with laughter, “confused” as it may be. As Ritvo said in a recent interview, “If you make something sad funny, you’re much more likely to remember it. It’s a mnemonic device that makes suffering rhyme with joy.”
In the spirit of Ritvo, we must return to our start, and consider the following anew: “The bed is on fire / and are you laughing?” Although my flesh might burn for it, I am sure the answer is YES.