Two Poems by Max Ritvo

Self-Portrait as Jesus

My hand let pain see.

My hand was a head
for an eye of red.

Pain saw a nail.

Then the other hand,
and my chest slit with gills
for the new thing
taking over.

I vacated the mind’s lot
of my own accord.

Weeds I expected—worms, moles—
but nothing like this—

the soil curdled into an ocean,
a flatfish eating a bottom
that’s always eroding.

It stirs. I bleed. A lesson:
Pain is just panic sitting still for a moment.

As my blood pours
it moves the air.

I feel all of you pulled behind it,
down my legs
to the brown ground.

Test your cells, hold them tight
in machines forever.
The white ones are saints,
the red ones people.

I want you to know
I once had friends,

that I served them uncontrollably,
sometimes full of contempt—and that was grace.


Earthquake Country Before Final Chemotherapy

For the first time tonight,
as I put my wife to bed
I didn’t have to shove her off me.

She turned away in her sleep.

I wondered what was wrong with my chest.

I felt it, and the collar bone
spiked up, and where she’d rest
her cheek were ribs.

Who wants to cuddle a skeleton?

My skeleton wandered from the house
and out onto the street.

He came, after much wandering, to the edge of a bay
where a long bridge headed out—
the kind that hangs itself with steel

and sways as if the wind could take
away its weight.

There were mountains in the distance—
triangles of cardboard—
or perhaps the mist was tricking his eyes.

The instant the mist made him doubtful,
it turned to rain.

The rain covered everything. The holes
in his face were so heavy
he wondered if the water was thickening—
if he was leaching into them.

He panicked. Perhaps he was gunked up
with that disgusting paste,
flesh, all over again.

If I were alive I’d have told him
I was nothing like what he was feeling—

that the rain felt more like
the shell of a crab
than the way I’d held him.

That it felt more like him.

But I wasn’t alive—
I was the ghost in the bridge
willing the cars to join me,

telling them that death was not wind,
was not weight,

was not mist,
and certainly not the mountains—

that it was the breaking apart,

the replacement of who, when, how, and where
with what.

When my skeleton looked down
he was corrupted

in the femur by fracture,
something swelling within.

Out of him leaked pink moss.
Water took it away.

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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
Co-Editor: Ben DOWNING
Associate Editors:
Assistant Editors:
Design and Art Direction: Alyssa VARNER
Printer: Cadmus Press

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