Ecstatic Brain

by Julian Gewirtz

Max Ritvo. Four Reincarnations. Milkweed Editions 2016. 79 pp. $22.00


One night, Max Ritvo, a vegetarian, mistakenly ate a dish containing meat and became violently sick. He was also stoned. In the altered state that resulted, he had a vision of his dead white poodle, Monday, whom he addresses in “Poem to My Dog, Monday, on Night I Accidentally Ate Meat”:

Monday, with your millions of soft horns,
I will slip behind your poodle eyes
loading myself like a cartridge of light.

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.

For Ritvo, the chances of not “giving” his life to cancer were, he knew, remote. He died at only twenty-five, in August 2016. About six weeks later, his first and last book of poems, Four Reincarnations, was published. In it, he writes with an awareness that every utterance is simultaneously an introduction (Hi, I’m the poet Max Ritvo) and a farewell (I’m off to the next life now). The book’s greatest achievement is to show that his naturalness, wildness, and big “ecstatic brain” endured until the end. Four Reincarnations is a meticulous record of a feral, expansive, erudite imagination.

Many of Ritvo’s best qualities are on display in “Poem to My Dog, Monday.” There’s his humor (the premise); his inventiveness (“loading myself like a cartridge of light,” which figures the face as a gun that shoots the soul from the eyes); his extravagance (“millions of soft horns” as a description of the poodle’s fur); his spiritual imagination (the proposed trade of lives); his connection to animals; his winning wordplay (the puns on “taking” and “giving” a life); and his extraordinary directness, which is sharpened by suffering—the pain of his cancer, his fear of death, his anxiety about the looming bereavement of his loved ones—into a tool that can point, etch, and wound.

In Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag observed, “Cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry; and it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.” Though she overlooked figures like L.E. Sissman, who wrote powerful poems about his Hodgkin’s disease, she had a point. Since then, American poets such as Jorie Graham and J.D. McClatchy have written about their experiences with cancer (and Claudia Rankine’s next book will reportedly focus on “the culture of cancer”). But Ritvo has done for cancer something not unlike what D.A. Powell did for HIV/AIDS: He has given us perhaps the first complete poetic universe in which cancer is a fundamental and central fact. Put another way, Ritvo creates a world of totems, rituals, memories, dreams, allusions, and friends, and cancer is an integral part of it. The disease does not haunt or lurk in the mansion-rooms of these poems; it is one of the foundation stones on which the house is built. Powell sees AIDS on the dance floor, in the pasture, in the Kool-Aid man, and his poetry is made to encompass it; similarly, Ritvo makes poetry of the pattern on his hospital-bed sheets, the needle drawing his blood, and the fun he might have with a visiting friend. In this flattening environment, his voice remains authentic and vibrant even as it sweeps across wildly different registers. It’s like Meryl Streep performing Mamma Mia and The Cherry Orchard on the same night.

One sensed this energy immediately upon meeting Max. I was introduced to him by Lucie Brock-Broido, who had been my teacher at Harvard and was one of his treasured mentors at Columbia, where he got his M.F.A. Standing next to Max before a reading, Lucie waved me over from across the room and said, “Oh, this will be fun.” And it was. Max was exhilaratingly forthright and full of frothy joie de vivre. We met only a few more times and texted occasionally, but he always made a strong impression, no matter the medium. To interact with Max was to encounter a rush of wacky charisma and intellectual energy. When we met for the first time that night at Columbia, I knew immediately that he must write strange, wild poems, and I wanted to read them.

Four Reincarnations begins with a series of mystical origin stories that blend the mythic energies of god, mother, and father. Here’s the first stanza of “The Curve”:

Something, call it X, wanted a body
so it made our bodies.
But our bodies weren’t right for it—

A bit later, Ritvo adds, “X realized all animal bodies were like this, so it made language.” X is a godlike figure, a maker who, dissatisfied with its first pass at creating humankind, adds language to distinguish this new creation from “all animal bodies.” Language, a volatile force put into humans by a divinity experimenting with its powers, causes complications: “complication is all X ever wanted for us,” Ritvo writes. But because Ritvo is a daredevil, X is made to uncross its legs:

I am your lover and X’s.
I am too good a lover
to ever be bored:

Skinny, hairy-chested,
made of pellets of rice,
cheeping in a way that’s
endearing and inappropriate,
confused, surprised at the confusion,
surprised at the surprise,
and so on, very tiringly, so on.

This passage begins with a riposte to Berryman’s Dream Song 14 (“Life, friends, is boring”), in which Berryman’s mother says, “Ever to confess you’re bored / Means you have no // Inner Resources.” Berryman concludes that he must have no inner resources, “because I am heavy bored.” By contrast, Ritvo brushes off boredom, bringing his swagger (and libido) straight to the temple. If X were a regular god, Ritvo might be smote for such defilement. He acknowledges that his hard-won bravado is “endearing and inappropriate” and admits to the “surprise” and “confusion” produced by his “cheeping.” Finally, he reveals that his high jinks have left him exhausted. Being created, like creating, is hard work; by the end of “The Curve,” Ritvo’s spirit remains undaunted but his “skinny, hairy-chested” body is plainly tired. His body is a drag on his speedy mind.

Animals play an important role in Ritvo’s imagination. Some, like Monday, are pets. Others are totemic creatures of mysterious provenance, such as those in “Black Bulls,” here quoted in full:

My mind is
three black bulls on
three hills of sand, far apart.

My loved ones
sleep in clay hollows.

If I turn from you, you will go back
to your clay hollow.

The aqueducts of the city of my language
clot with lather.

The world is bad
and I am bad.

Three black bulls on three hills
of sand are stretching apart
the sheet of my language, crawling with ants.

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 blistered glass.

Their hooves swelter against these
wrong bells.

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

This poem is memorable for its rueful final line and its ability to mix a boldly mythic tone with what I imagine as the voice of a child in therapy (“The world is bad/ and I am bad”). Overall, however, I don’t find it successful. In part, I blame the bulls, which elicit from Ritvo a mode of speech at once dreamlike and virile (“Three black bulls stomp the hills of sand/ into blistered glass”). Ritvo is may seem self-important (nine instances of “I,” “my,” or “mine” in ten stanzas) and self-assured as he predicts and explains the behavior of other people (“If I turn from you, you will go back/ to your clay hollow”; “This is the basis/ upon which we seek company”). These assertions sit uneasily above the final line, with its apologetic earnestness. Some of the writing is uncharacteristically inflated—for example, “The aqueducts of the city of my language/ clot with lather”—and some is aurally compelling but imagistically unearned, like “wrong bells.” I love the way this sounds, but why are the bells wrong? What in the poem has prepared me for them to be wrong? I am willing to follow Ritvo far, but not that far.

Another poem about animals, “Poem to My Litter,” is perhaps the best thing in the book. In it, Ritvo describes how his doctors used mice to test various experimental therapies. Here are the opening lines:

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

My doctors split up my tumors and scattered them
into the bones of twelve mice. We give

the mice poisons I might, in the future, want
for myself. We watch each mouse like a crystal ball.

Like those of the divine X in “The Curve,” these experiments don’t work out; the doctors find no cure for Ritvo’s cancer. Still, Ritvo feels a peculiar love for the mice, because they carry his genes, as would a son or daughter. “Cancer is a demonic pregnancy,” Sontag wrote, but even she could hardly have imagined such a fantasy of reproduction:

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.

At the end of the poem, Ritvo directly addresses the mice:

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.

And since I do absolutely nothing (my pride, like my fur,
all gone) nothing happens to me. And if a whole lot

of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace.
Which is what we want. Trust me.

The poem ends on an imperative of extraordinary tenderness. Ritvo, knowing that the doomed mice have become unwitting vessels for his illness, also knows that his speech cannot reach them (“They don’t know they’re named, of course”). But his desire to pass on parts of himself is so great that he addresses them anyway. What he says to them about the acceptance of his own suffering reflects his Buddhist faith and especially the Buddha’s teachings about dukkha (though his shift from “in part” to “a whole lot” also recalls 1 Corinthians 13). In the parenthesis, Ritvo’s grim tone (“my pride…all gone”) gives way to equanimity, an effect achieved through a sweetly childlike simile that transforms his lost hair into mammalian “fur,” which is “gone” but not to be mourned. This forbearance underlies his repetition of “nothing” three times in as many lines. Even as he undergoes experimental procedures designed to postpone death, he embraces the inevitability of death, which brings “peace” to his “suffering” body. “It’s all a little touchingly pathetic,” he writes in the following poem, “Dawn of Man.” But the pathos of “Litter,” a poem as loose and natural as late-night conversation, is unmatched.

The short second section of Four Reincarnations brings a dramatic change in tone: It’s groovy, mordant, and profane, like a standup routine shown on television only after midnight. Two characters, Crow (a stand-in for Ritvo’s ex-girlfriend) and Randal (a talented, handsome rival poet and lover), are Ritvo’s subjects. The first poem in the sequence, “For Crow,” reads like a manic remake of Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole.” Ritvo writes in a frenzy: “the thing in my life that adds up / is my motion . . . How I feel is then forgotten, / and instead I find myself / moving, joy, moving!” But after this expansive poem, the sequence shifts to emotions that are puerile and petty, like those of a spoiled child. In “To Randal, Crow-Stealer, Lord of the Greenhouse,” Ritvo blusters, “I imagine defecating over your eyebrows: a unibrow.” In “Mommy Harangues Poor Randal,” he is even crasser: “they call it a punch line because I punch you / in the fucking face if you step over the line.” Yet this is a knowing performance, as Ritvo boasts in “Sky-Sex Dreams of Randal”: “I am raving at you / with extremely good eye contact.” Of course, it’s not surprising that someone diagnosed with terminal cancer would feel angry. But Ritvo’s anger feels fundamentally playful. After the mythic poems of the first section—and the reader’s introduction to the painful facts of Ritvo’s life—this ribald sequence provokes mostly laughter (and an occasional grimace). He is a piano prodigy letting loose by playing ragtime while sitting on a whoopee cushion.

After this wild scherzo comes the richly emotional third section. These poems are addressed to Ritvo’s wife, Victoria, to his therapists, and to others (including Monday). The first, “Poem about My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid,” begins with a description of a long kiss:

You chase my face with your face
by making my faces:

Your lips, right after mine, form a crescent
and wax and wane with all the moons
of my mouth.

You catch up and have my thoughts.
Your brain binds around mine, a gold gauze.

You have my thoughts faster than I can.
The mouth made from our lips
pours chilly water
out the pipe.

We go faster than I imagined
my mind built time or built itself.

I see behind the documents:
the gauze swelling with gold
blood into a halo.

Thou art me before I am myself.

The first stanza captures a luminous moment, in which a young married couple find themselves filled with erotic energy and a sense of total harmony. Ritvo’s cancer is forgotten, for a moment, in the pleasure of a kiss. But then the word “gauze” intrudes on this scene: Gilded or not, “gauze” is a material from the hospital, not the bedroom. “Chilly water” is a further reminder of illness and death. Soon, however, Ritvo feels freed of his body in his new unity with his bride, his mind speeding beyond what he ever “imagined.” As for the grandiose, archaic diction of the final line, it seems to reflect a view of this vein of work—a dying lover writes poems to his new wife—as impossibly old-fashioned, out of an earlier century. But the actual meaning of the line (“you are me before I am myself”) suggests that he believes, or at least hopes, that his wife will be able to carry his “self” forward after he is gone.

In the following poem, “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe,” Ritvo’s focus on self and soul is rudely interrupted by the body. The poem begins with an utterance (in the voice of his wife) that immediately undercuts the transcendent ending of the prior poem: “Why do you shit so much—is it cancer or anxiety?” Not one to be outdone, Ritvo replies, “I go to the bathroom to visit my ex-girlfriends.” The poem shifts between his wife’s voice and his own:

I thought I might sleep in the bathroom tonight.
Please don’t be mad, wife.

I’m not mad at you,
I’m mad at the universe unfolding in your body.

By imagining his wife’s voice in these poems, Ritvo allows his readers to hear from the woman who is the addressee of so many of them, although her utterances are filtered through him. In the responses he writes for her, Ritvo implies that she has her own symbolic system through which she understands his cancer (“the universe unfolding in your body”) and, of course, her own emotional reaction to it.

The second part of “When I Criticize You . . .” begins with these lines:

I went to the bathroom to sleep.
I dreamt two dreams—one inside the other—
The outer dream, a shell,
the deeper dream, a yolk.

I picture Ritvo sleeping curled inside a bathtub, its white oval like a shell. In speaking of eggs to his wife, he implicitly refers to her fertility and the possibility of a “universe” of new life “unfolding in” her body. But his primary suggestion has to do with interiority and depth. If the shell is the body, the yolk is the soul; the shell breaking might seem like the ruin of a perfect creation, but the yolk—the deeper dream—is still waiting within.

Images of transformation and breakage are rife in this section. “I write something beautiful, and then something to knock it all down,” Ritvo once remarked in an interview with the poet Kaveh Akbar. In “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night,” for example, he writes, “The sand is fine, chewed through / by the waves many times over”; we get a brief glimpse of a soft sand beach, then a grating process of oceanic mastication. By repeatedly using this two-step strategy, Ritvo provokes a feeling of suspense in his readers: When we encounter a beautiful passage in his poems, we tense up and prepare ourselves for him to “knock it all down.”

Sometimes, though, Ritvo can’t help but leave beauty standing. Addressing his wife in “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together,” he says:

You are a flower bulb
that can feel even in winter earth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We are becoming a bulb
in the ground of the living,
in the winter of being alive.

When “the winter of being alive” is over, he suggests, the bulb will sprout through “the ground of the living” and flower in heaven, where they will be “together” once again. The warm first sentiment—his wife’s sensitivity is so great that she retains feelings even in the cold, hard ground of winter—is followed by an ominous statement about imminent death. If this were all, the poem would follow his “write something beautiful…” template. But its title reminds us that the flower he and his wife are “becoming” is the vessel for a reunion beyond life: “together,” in heaven.

Reading this section, I was moved to see a natural, everyday love story emerge from such difficult circumstances. Ritvo doesn’t gloss over the reality of his illness, but neither does he allow it to overshadow the story he wants to tell. Why should fate deny him the full experience of love and marriage just because it has denied him a long life? That experience, embraced with such intensity and urgency, is preserved in lyric: His union with his wife is planted safely in the environment that fostered it, “the ground of the living.”

The fourth and final section of Four Reincarnations cycles through visions of death. Its opening poem, “Second Dream,” consists of two couplets:

I hold my face
in the bed.

Me: What is my future?
Shon: Flowers. You are marrying flowers.

In the first couplet, Ritvo may be examining his cheeks, hollowed out by a withering new therapy, or else he may be crying (which he does not otherwise permit himself in Four Reincarnations). At any rate, his existential dread seems to be at its peak. In the dreamlike dialogue of the second couplet, his friend Shon, a fellow Buddhist, responds with words that echo “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together.” But “Second Dream” is like the “deeper dream” of “When I Criticize You,” and the “yolk” here is a buried vision of his body decomposing and providing nutrients to flowers that may someday bloom. With its dialogue and botanical image, the poem also recalls Whitman’s “A child said, What is the grass?” Ritvo, however, does not follow Whitman in concluding, “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” As Ritvo says in “Plush Bunny,” the next poem in this section, “You start to reek. / That’s you moving on.”

Ritvo’s extravagance and humor are back on display in this section. In “The Big Loser” (whose title recalls the televised weight-loss competition The Biggest Loser), he writes:

The angel sends the man
a happy vision from his past—the time

he fed birthday cake
to his goldfish
after an unsuccessful party.

I laughed out loud at these lines, not only because of their surrealist absurdity but because this glum scene is presented as an angelic “happy vision.” Of course, it’s even funnier when you recall the allusion of its title. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all lose a few pounds by feeding our goldfishes dessert instead of eating it ourselves? At the same time, the image is almost macabre (I think of John Wheelwright’s description of a fish-eaten corpse in “Fish Food”: “Fishes will kiss you, each / fish tweak you; every kiss takes bits of you away, / till your bones alone will roll, with the Gulf Stream’s swell.”) “At life’s close,” Ritvo ventures later in the same poem, “you’re like a child whose parents / step out for a drive[.]” This boyish, morbid charm is a new sound.

Yet this section is distinguished most of all by directness of speech. “If I put pure water in my mouth / and cough it out, it’s mud,” Ritvo writes in “The End,” suggesting the dire effect of cancer spreading to his lungs and throat. In “Touching the Floor,” he says plainly, “I used to want infinite time with my thoughts. / Now I’d prefer to give all my time / to a body that’s dying from cancer.”

With death near, Ritvo uses the final poem of the book, “Universe Where We Weren’t Artists,” to instruct two friends to “pick / where I rest.” He imagines his final moments:

A cuff of air.
We look up to
the hilarious moon.

I fall down in white mud.

When the breath starts to be ragged,
tickle me, my deepest beloveds—
so that the raggedness becomes confused.

To die laughing: That is Ritvo’s final wish in Four Reincarnations. His dream of being tickled by the hands of his “deepest beloveds” amounts to a wild and celebratory extreme unction. The “reincarnations” of the book’s title are not so much discrete lives as forays of the imagination, in a universe where artists, not gods, are the supreme deciders.

I was traveling when I got a text from Max’s best friend, the poet Elizabeth Metzger. Max had died in his sleep, she said. “I’m so sorry to tell you this way but wanted you to know before the Internet.”

In the days after Max died, John Berryman’s elegies for Delmore Schwartz replayed over and over in my head, along with the poems in Four Reincarnations. I was halfway through with this review (by that point the book was in galleys), which I hoped to finish in time for him to read. After he died, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to write a review of his death; I wanted to write a review of his book. But as I mourned and reread his poems, I realized that spending time with Four Reincarnations had prepared me for his death, in a specific way I still don’t fully understand. When I saw Elizabeth’s message, I felt shock and sadness, but most of all I felt “wholly possessed by this practice, wholly prepared,” as Jorie Graham writes in “What the End Is For.” Max’s poems contain a deep, authentic acceptance of his fate, and they passed it on to me as a reader; they changed my response to his death, not after the fact but before. If grief (from Old French grever, “burden, encumber”) is a burden, this particular burden was a sack of silver ingots that could be turned into coins. My grieving had taken shape through writing about the book, as if it had been poured into the mold I was making.

Max’s ecstatic brain remained “young & gift-strong,” as Berryman writes of Schwartz, but his body weakened until, finally, the end came. It is not wrong, I think, to allow sorrow to color our response to his poems. The full glory of “To Autumn” exists whether or not you know of Keats’s impending death, but knowledge of his prognosis makes the poem even more moving. The reality of his death presses up against the beautiful imagined deaths of the poem, each rendering the other more immediate and more meaningful. The same is true of this marvelous book.

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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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