“Lightning that Wants to Stay”: On Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations

Peter LaBerge

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2016. 79 pages. $22.00.

So often—in literature, in the media, by loved ones—we are told that we are at least partially in control of our bodies and, by extension, the fates they encase. Yet Max Ritvo’s stunning collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, seems to offer a slightly different portrait—one in which bodies will ultimately do what they will, in which our task becomes accessing the beautiful, the daunting, the joyful, the painful, and the strange, and unapologetically experiencing each. In many ways, it is a fitting message for a collection that simultaneously acts as a debut and as an epilogue. (Shortly before the collection’s September 2016 release, Ritvo tragically passed away at the age of twenty-five, following a nine-year battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma.)

Impressively, neither Ritvo nor his poems are defined by the unforgiving disease. Rather, the poems of Four Reincarnations explore the authentic tension between a body’s will to live and an impossibility of living. They access miraculous manifestations of life in places others might idly disregard—in front of a door “with the promise of a world beyond [it]” (“The Big Loser”), under a “hilarious moon” (“Universe Where We Weren’t Artists”), watching a “fish with a tail / so good at being a tail / it reaches its head again / and makes the head a tail” (“The Hanging Gardens”). Ritvo leads us into an experience of the body and the world governed by an unrelentingly vast spectrum of emotions, one that comes with his repeated suggestion that there are elements of pain and joy within every experience. Consider the beginning of Ritvo’s “The Senses,” in which “everything feels good to me: / my wool hat, / the cocoon of dryness in my throat,” or the message of his “Poem to My Litter,” in which he admits that “even my suffering is good, in part.” In “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night,” Ritvo’s succinct message is even clearer: “You can enjoy anything.” Such poems liberate our experience of the world from conventional expectations and implications, and—in so doing—encourage us instead to inhabit a perspective with unfettered access to the full spectrum of the body’s sensations. As Ritvo said in an interview last year with Kaveh Akbar for Divedapper, “So much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay.”

An underlying assumption that Four Reincarnations seems to make is that we as human beings are inextricably connected by the body’s ability to access sensation. This is first evident on the level of the collection’s titles—from “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe” to “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together,” there is a habitual ambiguity imposed on the space between the individual and the collective. Yet, as with much of Four Reincarnations’s nuance, here there is deliberate, conscious artistry. With his sparing yet evocative portrayal of the individual, Ritvo shows us how alone we are when we are by ourselves. For instance, in Ritvo’s poem “Snow Angels,” the singular body becomes “the only thing small enough / to have lived peaceably next to suffering”; at the ending of “Poem in Which My Shrink is a Little Boy,” Ritvo earnestly asks, “why would we want to give up / the little things we know / when we know so little?” No matter where we look or what we explore in Ritvo’s portrait of the world, every living body—including, or perhaps especially, that of Ritvo’s speaker—is rendered inextricably yet irrevocably connected to at least one other.

To be sure, Ritvo is careful to offer such illuminations to the reader with unassuming and understated poise. His poetic terms are the sort that appear plain enough to the naked eye, but are far from common or conventional in their complexity and reach. That is, Four Reincarnations ironically dips outside the realm of possibility in order to dip into the relatable. For instance, in “Afternoon,” Ritvo writes, “my body lights up for life / like all the wishes being granted in a fountain / at the same instant”; and in “To Randal, Crow-Stealer, Lord of the Greenhouse”: “I inhale the flower’s smoke, and it allows me to control every inch of my body.” Through such poems in which the familiar is presented in unfamiliar terms, the collection transcends resonance and achieves universality. It becomes clear, through such poems as “Crow Says Goodbye” and “Appeal to My First Love” that the impossibility of taming our unpredictable bodies connects us to each other, while simultaneously connecting the world to us.

It is natural and warranted to grieve for Ritvo’s relatively recent passing—for all of the brilliant poems that could’ve been—and we undoubtedly should. As we process and subsequently locate ourselves in Four Reincarnations, however, we find unmistakable aspects of Max still very much alive, thriving in these compelling, relatable, and heartbreaking poems. Like the tumors “uprooted / and moved” in “Poem to My Litter,” Ritvo’s unmistakable energy and zest have not been excised from the world, but rather relocated, redistributed to the readers who now share the gift of knowing a version of him. The nest of Ritvo’s ideas, experience, and poetic wisdom may be still, but Four Reincarnations is thankfully anything but.

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