Love (Re)Incarnate: On Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations By DOUGLAS RAY | DECEMBER 13, 2016
L et’s begin with the ending, which illuminates everything: Max Ritvo’s stunning debut collection, Four Reincarnations, is also his life’s work. And his last work. He died at the age of twenty-five at the end of August, and Milkweed Editions brought his book—his words incarnate—into the world a little over a month later. Even the copyright page seems unwilling to accept the fact of Ritvo’s death: the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data reads “Ritvo, Max, 1990- author.” No ending date. And if we can think of life’s journeys as many and disparate, as the book’s title suggests, Ritvo’s most recent incarnation was ended abruptly by Ewing’s Sarcoma, but it also brought into the world these poems, wise events that illuminate suffering and love, the mind and body in grief and in gratitude.
In an interview with The New Republic’s Sarah Ruhl, whom he thanks beautifully in his book’s bursting-with-love-and-grace Acknowledgements section, Ritvo says of his title: “Each of the four sections in the book is a different life. The first witnesses the birth of the universe, the second goes through a nasty breakup, the third tells of perfect love in a time of cancer, and the fourth sends poems from an underworld. But every ‘I’ in the book is me, however much time has passed between sections, however different the voice sounds as it passes into the world. So the lives are reincarnations.” Ritvo’s idea of moving through the book’s sections as one moves through life (or many lives) is reminiscent of the speaker in “The Layers,” a poem by Stanley Kunitz—another wise poet—who talks about the many lives he’s lived and how even though his lives were numerous, he found that some singular “principle of being / abides.” If there’s a principle of being that abides with Ritvo’s selves, it is a commitment to love and to accept, even when confused and imperiled. Just take these two simple lines from “Second Dream”: “Me: What is my future? / Shon: Flowers. You are marrying flowers.”
But though the story, the making of these poems, is so deeply sad, and perhaps the sadness makes things even more numinous, this book is not drenched in grief. It resists the maudlin and knows the power of joy, of laughter. At the end of the final poem, “Universe Where We Weren’t Artists”1, Ritvo commands—maybe exhorts is more accurate: “When my breath starts to be ragged, / tickle me, my deepest beloveds— / so that the raggedness becomes confused.” Yes, it is the body that complicates things, that demands passing on, but it is also the site of joy. The body, touched by loved ones, overrides suffering.
We understand in this life that suffering is the status quo; just as the Buddhist concept of reincarnation is fundamental to understanding the philosophy, so is suffering. And we’re always asking what is the antidote to suffering? Perhaps Ritvo suggests it is creation, community. Perhaps the acceptance of limits—except when it comes to love. Some of my favorite lines come in “The Blimp,” a poem in the last section, or “incarnation,” that speaks to how we can choose to approach difficulty:
I was asked to describe
some letters scratched on the wall
but making sense of them
was difficult, so I loved them, like mother,
and many years later, in the spreading
serenity, there was no place for this
as there is never a place
for struggle in a living room
where someone is pouring you ice water
in exchange for grateful silence you
learn to love.
Maybe, in order to learn to live fuller and to be better to each other, we should seek the fluid syntax and searing vision of the dying. Like the “letters scratched on the wall,” Ritvo’s particular lot—a rare, terminal cancer for someone very young—given to someone with things to say and people to love is difficult to suss out. But Ritvo chooses to love the inscrutable. His hermeneutic is one of love, not of dominance or mastery. In other parts of the book, we read poems to his wife, Victoria, that already seem enduring, lessons we’ll come back to in order to remind ourselves what’s good, what’s possible. I would place this collection alongside Tim Dlugos’s very late poems, including the magnificent “G-9”, as among the best poetry of the dying, the best writing as witness to disease, frailty, and lives cut short.
Just as Max Ritvo left his most recent incarnation on earth and ascended (hopefully) with laughter to some more perfect state, I was teaching my tenth-grade students Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. We discussed how Vasudeva, the wise river keeper crucial to Siddhartha’s enlightenment, could easily be read as a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being destined to be a Buddha who purposely remains on earth to teach others. As I’ve read and re-read this book, this gift from Max Ritvo, I am convinced that he remains our poet-Bodhisattva, enlightening us to the power of loving through suffering enough to write, to touch, to give. I’m sure that when my students read his poems, they will feel the same way.
You’ll finish this book and undoubtedly feel a lot because its making is as exceptional as its contents. You’ll reel in a state of wonder at what you’ve read (experienced is a better word). You’ll be angry that this first is a last. You’ll want to read these love poems to your beloved. You’ll text a friend and tell him to buy the book. You’ll feel gratitude for the fact that these poems have connected you to those you love.
NOTES 1 To make this moving poem even more full of heart, read, in Ritvo’s Acknowledgements section, the address to Andrew Kahn and Shon Arieh-Lerer.
DOUGLAS RAY is author of the poetry collection He Will Laugh and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is at work on a new project, Supporting Transgender Students: A Guide for Schools and Teachers. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Mississippi, he teaches at Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Four Reincarnations, by Max Ritvo Milkweed Editions, 2016