Do I Wake or Sleep?
The September 2016 issue of Poetry offers two poems by Max Ritvo, who passed away in August at the age of 25. Both catch their protagonists wandering between worlds—the worlds of sleep and waking, youth and age, life and death—and, at moments, existing in multiple worlds at once. “The Big Loser” begins:
The guardian angel sits in the treeabove the black lip of streetthe man walks down.He calls the man Cargo.The angel sees a pinewood box in place of the man,and the street he walks is a boat,the hull like a coal crater.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The angels call these overlays dreams,and believe they crop up because angelscan’t sleep but want to —space falls apart when you have unlimited time.
This scene is itself a dreamy overlay, one whose images ceaselessly shift: the man turns into cargo, then box; the street turns into a boat whose hull recalls yet something else—a crater (with a pun, perhaps, on “crate”). The first stanza operates vertiginously, with the angel propped in a tree “above” the street the man walks “down”—a street compared to a “lip,” as though the world is a mouth capable of swallowing him down. The images are as dark as this nighttime scene: “cargo” suggests the man is inanimate, and en route to some final destination; “pine wood” tells us this box is a coffin; and the crater-like hull hints at a deadly collision.
The man’s place in the world seems least stable of all: is he the box, or the cargo that the box holds? Wooden or human? Living or dead? The man’s in-between state recalls that of the angel—who is neither asleep nor awake—and, later, takes on a starker meaning:
The man reaches the end of the street. He’s a sick manand he starts to ponder deathas he often does these days:All of death is right here— the gods, the dark, a moon.Where was I expecting deathto take me if everywhere it isis on earth?
In more ways than one, the man is nearing the end of the street. His question brings to mind a logical knot: if all we can imagine of death is what we already know from earthly existence—the moon, the dark—then we can conceive of death only as a continuation of life. Perhaps that’s why the poem has shifted into past tense from present: “Where was I expecting death / to take me,” he asks, as though death has already taken him somewhere—as though he has already died, and yet, still alive, walks down the street, in an “overlay” of dying and living.
Such overlays continue throughout the poem. At the end of life, Ritvo writes, one is like
the child whose parentsstep out for a drive —everyone else out on a trip,but the child remains in the familiar bed,feeling old lumps like newin the mattress — the lights off —not sleeping, for who can sleepwith the promise of a world beyond the door?
What, exactly, is the “world beyond the door”? For the dying person, it could be the world of the living, from which he is increasingly excluded. Or it could be the world of the dead, which he will soon join. As earlier in the poem, those worlds blur together. Here, both qualify as “promising,” such that the dying man, like the excited child—and like the insomniac angel—cannot sleep, cannot truly enter death. Instead, he remains in between worlds, tantalized by both: in bed but alert, near but not yet at the end of the street.
Like “The Big Loser,” Ritvo’s other poem, “Dawn of Man,” lingers in the either-or and neither-nor:
After the cocoon I was in a human bodyinstead of a butterfly’s. All along my backthere was great pain — I groped to my feetwhere I felt wings behind me, tryingto tilt me back. They succeeded in doing soafter a day of exertion. I called that time,overwhelmed with the ghosts of my wings, sleep.
Is this speaker human or butterfly, drowsing or awake? His “sleep”—like the non-sleep of the angel—involves a chaotic combination of images, an unlikely mix of animal and personal. The wings tilt him back metaphorically as well as literally, returning him to another identity and another time.
Later, despite those ghost-wings, he starts making a complex kind of progress:
My mouth produced languagewhich I attempted to spin over myselfand rip through happier and healthier.
Language becomes his new, self-generated cocoon—a source of development and renewal, a tool that permits him to gestate and then birth himself. Spinning and re-spinning the cocoon, ripping through it again and again, he lurks forever on the border, dwelling in a vibrant and violent puberty—“like a boy,” the poem concludes, “who takes a razor from a high cabinet / puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.”