Introduction: Max Ritvo
Max Ritvo’s first submission of poems to this magazine last year began an unexpectedly brief but intensely poignant correspondence. Max wrote, quite disarmingly, that he wished to become part of the Poetry family. I say disarmingly because wanting to be considered family is not the usual cover letter gambit, but it was clear that he expressed this wish both deeply and sincerely. It was a reflection of his notion of the shared intimacy that exists among readers and writers of poems. No canon, no republic of letters, no “audience for poetry”; instead, a family. It’s sad to say so in retrospect, but with just one book to his name, Max turns out to be one of our best poets on the subject of wishes, alongside Robert Frost. A century ago, Frost wrote:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
— From Into My Own
And in his famous “Birches”:
May no fate willfully misunderstand meAnd half grant what I wish and snatch me awayNot to return. Earth’s the right place for love:I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Here is Max’s “Dawn of Man,” in the September 2016 issue of Poetry:
I’m told to set myself goals. But my minddoesn’t work that way. I, instead, have wishesfor myself. Wishes aren’t afraidto take on their own color and life —like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinetpuffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.
And “Afternoon,” from his book Four Reincarnations —
— my body lights up for lifelike all the wishes being granted in a fountainat the same instant —all the coins burning the fountain dry —and I give my breathto a small bird-shaped pipe.
We think of wishes in the most superficial way, ordinarily: birthday wishes, say, when we blow out the candles, or Amazon Wish Lists. When you turn to the poets, though, you see something both brighter and darker than that. It’s as if wishes are actually reasons to keep on living — and that’s why they can’t all come true, though Max imagines such a thing to be possible, like answering the genie’s request for three wishes by asking for more, and why Frost imagines fate only half granting a wish to disappear (which will fully come true, in the end, anyway).
What could be harder than losing a member of the family? Max died on August 23, 2016, and did not live to see his poems in this magazine, nor did he get to hear the podcast that we made with him during his last days. In writing to accept his poems for publication, though, I was at least able to tell him that he was and would always be in our family. And indeed, Max’s work led me to his own family, particularly his mother, Ariella Riva Ritvo-Slifka, and his wife, Victoria J.H. Ritvo. Thanks to them and Elizabeth Metzger we are able to present a selection of Max’s unpublished poetry, along with an intriguing prose piece that hints at other roads he might have taken. As Max put it in “Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death,”
Sure, I wish my imagination well,wherever it is. But nowI have sleep to fill.
And no doubt many miles to go. As his readers, we could wish for much more of Max’s work, but fortunately there are still at least a few more lines for us to cherish in the pages that follow.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...