Audio

Max Ritvo reads “Dawn of Man”

October 29, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of October 29th 2018. I’m producer Curtis Fox with an archival edition of the podcast from September of 2016. The podcast was hosted by poetry editor Don Share and associate editor Lindsay Garbutt. They were joined in the discussion of the poem by Christina Pugh, the consulting editor for the magazine. Here’s Don Share.
Don Share: We have two poems by Max Ritvo in the September issue. Max was twenty-five years old when he died last month. For nine years, he lived with the cancer that ultimately caused his death. In July, we recorded him reading his poems in this issue and we asked him, given the situation, how he wanted us to introduce him on this podcast.
Max Ritvo: I want you to make a bigger deal of the poems than the sad cancer man. But the poems only make sense in part because they are written by a dying twenty-five-year-old and to deny the audience that context makes the poems less fun. And I want people to have fun with my poems.
Don Share: In that spirit, let’s turn to one of his poems, “Dawn of Man.” Here is how he introduced it for us.
Max Ritvo: I wanted to do a kind of creation myth for humans and I thought it would be funny if we were like a failed draft of butterfly. Like a caterpillar that then ended up going a little haywire and became a human. The idea that certain elements of butterfly-hood could be in the human register, like sleep being failed wings and stuff like that, could be a lot of fun to play around with.
Don Share: Here is Max Ritvo reading “Dawn of Man.” Our conversation about the poem that follows his reading was recorded before he died.
Max Ritvo:

After the cocoon I was in a human body
instead of a butterfly’s. All along my back

there was great pain — I groped to my feet
where I felt wings behind me, trying

to tilt me back. They succeeded in doing so
after a day of exertion. I called that time,

overwhelmed with the ghosts of my wings, sleep.
My thoughts remained those of a caterpillar — 

I took pleasure in climbing trees. I snuck food
into all my pains. My mouth produced language

which I attempted to spin over myself
and rip through happier and healthier.

I’d do this every few minutes. I’d think to myself
What made me such a failure?

It’s all a little touchingly pathetic. To live like this,
a grown creature telling ghost stories,

staring at pictures, paralyzed for hours.
And even over dinner or in bed — 

still hearing the stories, seeing the pictures — 
an undertow sucking me back into myself.

I’m told to set myself goals. But my mind
doesn’t work that way. I, instead, have wishes

for myself. Wishes aren’t afraid
to take on their own color and life — 

like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinet
puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.

Don Share: It’s hard to even know what to say.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah.
Don Share: The poet has said so much and said so much in a way that, despite what the poem itself calls “exertion,” it leaves so much that remains to be said. And the hopes or wishes that the poet would have to be able to keep saying things is so palpable and so moving. I mean, in a strictly literary sense—and I know that this poet would want us to talk about the poems in that sense and not be pitying him—I felt like a great part of this poem is sort of part Kafka and part Rilke.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: It has the intensely emotional engagement with the world that Rilke has. To be able to see, which Rilke does, how the world looks back at you is a rare achievement. And I guess I never expected another poet to do something like that for me and then this poet does. And as far as Kafka goes, I mean, this is the part that would—I hope—make the poet smile a little bit, is this idea of a bug-like ... (LAUGHING) 
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. (LAUGHING)
Don Share: … metaphor for your exertions.
Max Ritvo: After the cocoon I was in a human body / instead of a butterfly’s.
Don Share: Instead of becoming a butterfly, which is what this creature would have expected and imagined …
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: ... you turn into a human body. It doesn’t necessarily bode well. You’re not gonna take flight. And, remarkably, the poet is saying: “All along my back / there was great pain.”
Max Ritvo: ... there was great pain — I groped to my feet / where I felt wings behind me, trying to tilt me back. They succeeded in doing so / after a day of exertion.
Don Share: That “exertion” is the description that takes us beyond, sort of, tropes about Sisyphus and stuff. I mean, it really deepens that suspicion that we all have and have so few words for that life is difficult and yet, as he says, a pleasure. “I took pleasure …”
Max Ritvo: I took pleasure in climbing trees. I snuck food / into all my pains.
Don Share: I mean, feeding your pains, nourishing them. It’s just a generous and sweet thing to do. But one has the continual sense that the poet didn’t choose this work. He didn’t start out, you know, having the attitude that he’s got as you heard in the introduction of the poems. It’s… that.. which is remarkable in the way that we want a poet and a poet’s work to be. Remarkable in that way.
Lindsay Garbutt: What’s so beautiful to me in this poem is that language is what makes these sorts of transformations possible.
Max Ritvo: My mouth produced language // which I attempted to spin over myself / and rip through happier and healthier.
Lindsay Garbutt: This is what language can do, that it brings us such pleasure and, as he said in his introduction, fun, that it’s an enjoyable process. Even if we have these pains and exertions that we also have to live through.
Max Ritvo: I, instead, have wishes / for myself. Wishes aren’t afraid / to take on their own color and life— // like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinet / puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.
Don Share: We have to talk about the ending of the poem...
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah!
Don Share: Because…
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Lindsay Garbutt: I don’t even know how...
Don Share: The poem is so intense as it is—and I say this on every podcast, I think—one of the things you want a poem to do is to sort of overcome your sense that you know what’s going on at every turn. I mean, that’s a pleasure of the poem for me. It doesn’t have to be continually surprising and kick you around. But when a poet succeeds at upping the ante, having been so good at something, that’s what’s to me a blossoming. It is like this poem emerges from a cocoon and, in spite of what Max says, becomes both human, but also a kind of butterfly. This poem really takes lift because it doesn’t settle for the complacencies of its own imagery.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Don Share: But that image of “a boy who takes the razor from a high cabinet” and “puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody” is… I don’t know what to say about that. I think the blank space after that, you have to fill in with whatever you can ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: ... surmise.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, it’s a real shock, I think, the first time you read the poem. Because there is a sense of a certain amount of playfulness at particular moments in this poem that seems to be commenting playfully or ironically at times on this concept of the universality of the dawn of man. And then to be left with that very violent image, and not just the hurt of it but the agency of it. He is seemingly doing this to himself. As a simile, you know, for what a wish is like. Yeah, it really pulls every rug out from under you, as a reader.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: Yeah.
(CHIME)
Don Share: You can read “Dawn of Man” and another poem by Max Ritvo in the September 2016 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: You’ve been listening to the weekly version of the Poetry magazine podcast. We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can listen to the whole program in the regular Poetry magazine podcast.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program and this new weekly format. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

In a special archival edition, the editors discuss Max Ritvo’s “Dawn of Man” published in the September 2016 issue of Poetry.

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