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Words That Sing, Dance, Kiss

On Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo

Four Reincarnations, by Max Ritvo.

Milkweed Editions. $22.00.

I first heard Max Ritvo’s voice in “Poem to My Litter,” published last year in The New Yorker. The distinguishing quality of a Max Ritvo poem is a leap from the literal to the fanciful, from the pedestrian to the performative. The leap ratifies itself in the success of the poem. Yes, a mortally ill young poet may know that lab animals are killed in the clinical trials that may save him, but how many poets would think of those animals as “my litter”? And how many, after the comic beginning, would crash into a shocking simile of family trauma and torture?

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.

They’re like children you’ve traumatized
and tortured so they won’t let you visit.

The sharp deflection into the human, as the guilt of bloody experiments on mice veers into the guilt of torturing children, is typical of Ritvo’s ingenuity of reflection. Just as he frames the mice whimsically as his “litter,” but then gives dreadful details of their suffering at the hands of doctors (“Before the tumors can spread // they bust open the legs of the mice”), so he frames the traumatized mice with traumatized children. Ritvo juggles the symbolic and the real so rapidly that the distinction between mice and children blurs in the intimacy of identity: “I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.” The poems in Four Reincarnations are a litter of Maxes for posterity: Max himself died last year at twenty-five of Ewing’s sarcoma. (Additional poems have seen publication in journals since his death.)

Ritvo often opens his poems with startling language: the very first 
line in Four Reincarnations is “The bed is on fire, and are you laughing?” A different sort of dramatization follows the mind’s slide from self-dramatization to a borrowed cliché: “I am raving at you / with extremely good eye contact.” Ritvo’s imaginative manner often combines unlikely objects: to his bride he says, “I see behind the documents: / the gauze swelling with gold /  blood into a halo.” Yes: the marriage contract. Yes, his bloodied bandages. And yes, as two become one in marriage, her golden halo intersects with his blood-stained swelling gauze. But it takes a minute to see how the 
documents, the bandages, and the halo combine; the consequent 
excitement on the page is like strobe lighting, flash after flash.

Ritvo’s electric style finds its complement in his allusive simplicity: 
to his wife, as they make love, the ground is not the grave, and winter is not deathly:

We are becoming a bulb
in the ground of  the living,
in the winter of  being alive.

The bulb will stand, as it always does, for future possibility. The elusive four reincarnations of Ritvo’s title find one embodiment here. Behind his bulb lies George Herbert’s:

         Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
         Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
                    Where they together
                    All the hard weather,
          Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
— From The Flower 

The hard weather is Ritvo’s winter; the underground mother-root is Ritvo’s bulb. Whether or not Ritvo — enormously well-read — was remembering Herbert, the bulb is a perennial image. Many of  Ritvo’s allusions have a long history in poetic tradition, and not solely from Western sources. From the Mahabharata, the prince Shon, killed by Arjuna, speaks to Ritvo in a dream:

Me: What is my future?
Shon: Flowers. You are marrying flowers.
— From Second Dream

From the bulb, human posies/poesies (a pun Herbert liked) will 
issue: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus’s prophecy of progeny is fulfilled in the virtual world of art as in the material world of propagation.

One of  Ritvo’s great charms is that his early childhood, down to his 
lisp in baby-language, is extraordinarily alive within his twenty-five-year-old self. Childhood surges up unexpectedly and with pathos in “Plush Bunny,” where — in a characteristically blurred sequence of future, past, future, and future-future — his life-stages, as they are telescoped, pull in and out of focus, culminating in a metaphor at once homemade and tragic, the stitched eyes of the “special bunny,” his transitional object:

My poor little future,
you could practically fit in a shoebox
like the one I kept ’pecial bunny in
when I decided I was too old to sleep with her.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
She had eyes, I could see them.
They were two stitches. My future has eyes,
for a while. Then my future has stitches,
like ’pecial’s.

Like all credible poets, Ritvo has a fidelity to iron as well as to bunnies and flowers. He consciously “spoils” the sweetness of the bunny-past with an acerbic gesture to the future’s end: “You start to reek. / That’s you moving on.” The reek is as abrupt as the grinning skull Dickinson saw:

          a Face of Steel — 
That suddenly looks into ours
With a metallic grin — 
The Cordiality of Death — 
Who drills his Welcome in — 
— From That after Horror — that ’twas us

The normal response of a youthful poet is to take “in all beauty with an easy span” (Keats, “The Human Seasons”). But the writer, no matter how young, once awakened to imminent mortality must acknowledge the coming winter: “He has his winter too of pale 
misfeature / Or else he would forgo his mortal nature.” Ritvo’s admission, like Keats’s own, is both unwilling and compelled: both were honest poets. Both strained to find the adequate diction for the moment of horror: “pale misfeature” and “reek” are registered by the senses (sight, smell), but the conceptualizing mind demands its hour as well. When Ritvo, speaking as his child-self in “The Big Loser,” awakens from a hideous nightmare of the grave — “It’s burning hot, the heat coming / from bugs and worms / raping and devouring one another” — he must embark on the painful transformative work required to turn the human terrors preceding Four Reincarnations into the living word of the imagination:

He starts the hard work
of the imagination,
learning to minister to the new dream.

To me, this is Ritvo’s most moving sentence. As he defines “the hard work / of the imagination” he draws — with the single word “minister” — on the desperate scene in Macbeth, in which Macbeth, seeing his wife go mad, pleads with the summoned doctor “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,”

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

The doctor replies:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.

To minister to the unfortunate is an act of tenderness; the poet must somehow conceive a way to understand the psychic wound dealt by the hideous dream of the grave, “ministering” to it by inventing for it a symbolic form, a “sweet oblivious antidote” that will denature its poison. As so often, the tradition — here in Shakespeare’s sense of the lonely act of “ministering” — glimmers underneath Ritvo’s re-voicing. Ritvo greets with instant recognition Shakespeare’s words naming what a dying person knows: a mind diseased, a rooted sorrow, troubles of the brain, a killing heartache.

Ritvo had lived for almost a decade in the shadow of a potentially lethal disease. Keats, under the same shadow, facing death at twenty-five, revealed in “To Autumn” how his own self-ministering dealt with the shock of certain death. As his life accelerated to a premature end, he wrote a fable acknowledging that in order to gain the necessary sustenance of food and drink, human beings had to destroy the beautiful panoramas of the autumn harvest: the gathered grain must be flailed to become bread, the beautiful apples must be crushed to become cider. He did not end his “hard work of the imagination” with his earlier bitter view of “pale misfeature,” but rather with an autumn both consoling and consoled, as the earlier visual luxury fades into a last austere plenitude, an aural twilight of life-sounds: cricket-
song, lamb-bleats, robin-whistles, and swallow-twitters. Ritvo, 
himself accelerating through all the human seasons, replicates — in a poem published in Poetry, “The Soundscape of Life Is Charred by Tiny Bonfires” — Keats’s own autumnal “soundscape” in his own: “Everywhere life-sounds / swarm this, our shared pond, like mating turtles.” The life-sounds at first seem modern — the whooshing of cars, the humming of schmoozers (two incessant pollutants). But some things never change: the poet finds that in the alternating coupling and sobbing of marriage, the poisonous snake hides as it did in Eden:

Cars whoosh, schmoozers hum,
snakes spit poison, Martin and Martina say yes

and sob and hold.

The question is when to give up: but instead of St. Paul’s solemn 
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7) Ritvo ends his mortal race with a wry and ironic modern aphorism on suicide:

You’re almost at the finish line.
But first, you have to pick a finish line.

Ritvo often integrates his complicated intuitions by moving — 
apparently effortlessly — from the surreal to the real. The conjunctions 
are convincing: he sees “eyes like blisters / leaking fondness.” His devastating self-portrait, surreal though it is, subsides into the awful exhaustion of an emaciated body unable not to utter language (even if only in the form of Keatsian bird-cheeping):

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.
— From The Curves

Ritvo’s successive adjectives and nouns, culminating in the always unexpected (but cruelly repeated) surprise of each new symptom, of each hazarded treatment, track the emotional consequences of the disease: “confused,” “surprised,” “confusion,” “surprised,” “surprise.” 
Eventually he realizes that poetic narrative and his obligation to it cannot cease: “and so on, very tiringly, so on.” Normally, poets have declared the exhilaration of creation. It takes a moment (after Ritvo’s cartoon portrait of his body) to see the force of that understated “tiringly,” to recognize the loss of hope in “and so on,” to participate in the convincing rhythmic entropy of “and so on, very tiringly, so on.”

Ritvo’s anecdotes are no less transfixing as they mix realms and speech-registers. In “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night,” a man’s shadow of fatality suddenly becomes a shadow spider that induces the suicide of his inner cricket:

The man becomes a web
and his shadow becomes a spider.

It’s not that his life passes to the shadow — 
but a tipping happens, as in an hourglass,

and suddenly there’s a new order
to the life he never knew was shared.

That night a cricket kills himself in the man.

Behind Ritvo’s lines we again hear the susurrus of tradition; Tennyson’s cricket-Tithonus; Dickinson’s “spectral canticle” of crickets in the grass; Keats’s reassuring cricket on the hearth in his sonnet “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”; and especially Keats’s undaunted assertion in “To Autumn” of the central unmodified verb: “Hedge-crickets sing.” In those reverberations, the crickets are still the life-principle, their song the poet’s. Ritvo’s cricket, against all these, has gone silent in eerie self-destruction. Ritvo’s spider has ancestors in Job, Jonathan Edwards, Donne, and Dickinson, but Ritvo’s man — who is a web harboring a death-dealing spider and a living cricket — is new. It’s as if, reading Ritvo, one is reading several poems at once, as the receding planes of past verses are rescued by the present lines. Just when we cannot guess where the next analogy will be found, suddenly, for instance, we hear grating tectonic plates: “The new day is slid underneath / the old days.” The modern surreal can too often become senseless or coy; Ritvo’s surreal is as real as his real. He packs the surreal into the real so unobtrusively (as the single word “slid” visualizes the tectonic plates) that we — expecting some longer elaboration of a metaphor — can miss Ritvo’s single-word subtleties altogether until our second reading. Then (as Hopkins said) the meaning explodes.

Ritvo’s conceptual effort is athletic, even when a poem becomes uncertain. And his ripples of musicality survive. In one of his frightening fore-glimpses of the end, the familiar techniques of poetry — alliteration, assonance, syntactic parallelism, graphic placement — flicker within two chilly similes: the first one of market-haggling and the second one, its gruesome partner, one of automata playing with human heads in a macabre game of pool:

In the distance, behind several voices
haggling, I hear a sound like heads
clicking together. Like a game of pool
played with people by machines.
— From Afternoon

Ritvo’s alliteration — even when it shows off (as in “pool / played with people”) — does not sound like Hopkins’s or Dylan Thomas’s. He has decoupled their pulsing rhythms from his own faltering succession 
of sounds: his heartbeat is diminished, irregular, failing. As he says, “I give my breath / to a small, bird-shaped pipe.” The legato pipe of classical pastoral, miniaturized, is about to be etherealized into a Keatsian twitter.

It is impossible not to bring up Keats in the context of Ritvo, but Ritvo knew from adolescence the shattering fear that Keats acquired only at his first lung hemorrhage. Keats managed that knowledge by a gallant alternation of pathos and stoicism, while Ritvo manages it by an irresistible comedy nesting itself within bleakness. When Ritvo is introducing his poems to an audience (see YouTube), his festive clowning caroms off the candidly-related barriers of disease. Trying to split his mind from his body, he fails, and thereby defines his art:

        I split wrong. Only my mind split — 
into an array of sirens with
show tunes played in between them.
— From Stalking My Ex-Girlfriend in a Pasture

Foreboding sirens crossed with jazzy show tunes create the sonorities of many of  Ritvo’s narratives, as though every incident has to be told twice over, once in classical form, once in the modern vulgate. The old Greek and Christian symbol of resurrection — a caterpillar that becomes a soul-butterfly — is reincarnated in a new myth, “Dawn of Man”:

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.

Haunted by the ghosts of his aspiring wings, the poet blots out his memory of them:

My thoughts remained those of a caterpillar — 

I took pleasure in climbing trees. I snuck food
into all my pains.

“Could you have said the bluejay suddenly / Would swoop to earth?” asked Stevens in his poem about joy, “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man.” Could you have said that there would be a contest 
between the caterpillar and his wings? For me, the signal reward in reading Ritvo is coming upon his unforeseen volley of sparks — some tragic, some comic — as when the mental caterpillar, refusing the wings of rebirth, climbs trees and sneaks food into the hunger of his repudiated yearning. The modern transforming of Paradise — into a gold mosaic, the Emperor’s palace, “some splintered garland for the seer” — has seemed a duty to many twentieth-century poets (Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Crane). In age, some have forgone, if only temporarily, the nostalgic Edenic myth (Yeats in “The Black Tower,” Stevens in “The Plain Sense of Things”). Judging by Four Reincarnations, Ritvo abandoned the idea of supernatural consolation altogether, turning away from it with a pang, but also with gaiety, mockery, and self-mockery. His liveliness makes his rejection seem the better choice.

Ritvo choreographs the language of poetry as Whitman conceives it in An American Primer:

A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal    ...    or do any thing that man or woman or the natural powers can do.

Ritvo’s words give birth when he loves his lab rats, each of them named after himself. Singing occurs on his pages; so does dancing; so does making love. To these the weeping and the bleeding and the rage provide the continuo. The modern inventor in Ritvo loves, too, the new analgesic words studding the dictionary:

have too many wounds to zip up,
brain becoming a suit of  zippers,
soberly shutting.
— Zyprexa, the Snow Pills

The bullfighter wears a brilliant “suit of lights”; the invalid, bearing his wounds, wears “a suit of zippers,” slowly being closed not in wild mourning but in the sobriety of the lessening of pain.

Ritvo had the luck to study at Yale with Louise Glück and at Columbia with Lucie Brock-Broido, and to attract, before his death, many admirers of his ecstatic originality. Although he is inimitable, his example is there for young poets wanting to forsake simple transcriptive dailiness for the wilder country of the afflicted but dancing body and the devastated but joking mind.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2017

Helen Vendler was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to schoolteachers. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family, Vendler attended Emmanuel College, a Catholic school for women in Boston, where she studied chemistry. Awarded a Fulbright to complete post-graduate work at the University of Louvain in Belgium, Vendler switched her area of...

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