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Phillip Garland: On Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations

A poet's call to bravely inhabit the body.
Photo by Ashley Woo.

Poets have long attempted to chart the (dis)connection of the body and the mind. It is maybe the quintessential philosophical question because it not only shapes how we understand ourselves, but how we order and study the universe. This dichotomy informs our most basic human schema, and it is no wonder that so many poets have written about the body in hopes of getting at the mind, the soul, the ecstatic, the erotic. Too often in poetry, though, the body is a door that opens onto another room, in a house faraway, abstracted. In Four Reincarnations, Max Ritvo has reinvigorated poetry of the body by turning to himself and composing playful and frightening ruminations on the breakdown of his own body. These poems are characterized by their proximity, as if their words were inscribed on his own skin, making the body less a subject of inquiry and more of an existential task. Ritvo shows that the body, bearing scars as well as birds, is a thing to be carried through life.

Four Reincarnations serves as a document of Ritvo’s long fight against cancer, its title an ode to persistent creation. He passed away on August 23, 2016. But it is also a very beautiful, odd, funny and heart-startling book. Although the subject of his cancer does permeate these poems, Ritvo’s meditations range from grandiose (“Dawn of Man”) to ostensibly mundane (“Poem to My Dog, Monday, On Night I Accidentally Ate Meat”). The titles of his poems often feature his side-eyed humor that regularly erupts into a sort of zen prankishness that brightens Four Reincarnations and gives the reader an entrance to his world. Ritvo bravely pursues intimacy to the point of bare vulnerability, recalling such confessional poetry icons as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. When he writes in “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together” that “winter, by being so white, / is trying to talk to me—”, Ritvo is also quietly inviting the reader to lean in and listen.

Ritvo has many things to tell us about our bodies and our minds. He shows how frequently the door swings between the two. In “Black Bulls,” rich, tangible imagery veers abruptly into the speaker’s psyche: “Three black bulls stomp the hills of sand / into blistered glass. / Their hooves swelter against these / wrong bells. / I am so sorry that you have come to this mind of mine.” The body and the mind are intended to operate independently of each other in “Stalking my Ex-Girlfriend in a Pasture,” but Ritvo notes the futility of instructing either when he writes, “she instructed me to unyoke the mind and body / so that the mind could speak / as the body came / but I split wrong.” When loosed, the mind floats, and Ritvo masterfully captures the fuzzy drift of thought with rare clarity in “The Senses:”

I thought my next thought would be a vision of my suffering;
I thought I would understand the yellow lightning in a painted storm—
the crucial way it disappears
when I imagine myself flung
headlong into a painting.

Instead I have this picture of dissatisfaction,
the thought not rising, but splitting in half
on the unanswered question of lightning.

In “Lyric Complicity for One,” thought rises and races: “for every thought, a new fish soars / right under the anchored boat.” The mind it returns to the body with a jolt in “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe,” where Ritvo writes, after falling asleep in the bathroom, “the shell dream broke and I woke again, / my back stippled with tile, a scar of soap in my ear.”

In the centerpiece of this collection, “Poem to my Litter,” Ritvo grapples directly with his body’s fight against cancer: “my doctors split my tumors up and scattered them / into the bones of twelve mice.” What follows is a series of failed clinical trials in which the mice bleed to death or are injected with other harmful diseases. A harrowing portrait, yes, but one not untouched with love and bravery, as Ritvo adopts the mice–all of whom he has named “Max”– into his own family before addressing them: “I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me. / Even my suffering is good, in part. Sure I swell / with rage, fear—the stuff that makes you see your tail / as a bar on the cage. But then the feelings pass.” A levity hangs over this poem and others, and it stems from the refusal to view the body as anything but a loved object. In “Touching the Floor,” Ritvo tends to his body as one would to a dying lover, writing “I used to want infinite time with my thoughts. / Now I’d prefer to give all my time / to a body that’s dying from cancer.”

Ritvo has left behind a rich collection of poetry that emboldens us to bravely inhabit our bodies and to look toward the future as he does in “Afternoon”:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.

What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest

and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon.

Phillip Garland’s writing has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Colorado Review, the Los Angeles Review, and other places. He hails from Tennessee and lives in Chicago.

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