In Four Reincarnations, Max Ritvo captures the experience of slowly dying of cancer, illuminating the inner life of a patient, husband, and writer at the end of their journey. Ritvo was an editor for Parnassus and a teaching fellow at Columbia, and the fussiness needed in both of those stations is apparent in the collection. With exacting language that is at once metaphysical, dreamlike, and concrete, Ritvo lays his soul bare, putting to rest ambitions while attempting to ease the pain of those around him.
One of the main focuses of the collection is how Ritvo considers his wife, who loves him so intensely despite the temporary nature of their arrangement. Here, Ritvo creates a space for the last cinder of romance to seep through, as he celebrates her patience and strength in the face of heartache. “You leave the bed/ and leave me without thought,” he says in “Living It Up,” before continuing to express awe at her sturdiness and companionship. This gives way to darker notes and questions, with Ritvo saying, “I wish you would let me know/ how difficult it is to love me./ Then I would know you love me/ beneath all that difficulty.” There’s a need for knowledge beneath this apparent appreciation, as he reckons with not just the spectre of death, but how his condition might taint the kindness of his family. In many ways, this collection is an attempt to gain and offer clarity on both the experience of disease and what might come after.
While Ritvo heaps hallelujahs on his beloved, telling her “Thou art me before I am myself” in “Poem About My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid,” he also considers her life without him. In “Heaven is Us being a Flower Together,” Ritvo promises that he has written this poem inside of her, is becoming a soft bend in the body. This is an attempt to soothe any reservations about where that magic and connection goes after death, even if Ritvo isn’t necessarily sure himself. In “Plush Bunny,” Ritvo offers a simple example/extended metaphor that pleads for his wife to move on when the time is right. In discussing his discarding of a favorite stuffed rabbit, he offers, “Of course there is another world. But it is not elsewhere./ The eye traps it so where heaven should be/ you see shadows. You start to reek./ That’s you moving on.” As excruciating as it may be to advise your partner on matters of the heart and body, these poems attempt to push through that pain to reach and clasp the hand of mercy, of light.
This mercy finds hiccups and stranger shades in the work concerning regrets, exes, and the larger idea of life. In “Dawn of Man,” Ritvo deals with the limits of the body, and the lack of magic it possesses: “I’d do this every few minutes. I’d think to myself/ What made me such a failure?/ It’s all a little touchingly pathetic. To live like this,/ a grown creature telling ghost stories,/ staring at pictures, paralyzed for hours.” There are poets who transcend the boundaries of vulnerability to reach something resembling intimacy or possession, and here we inhabit that moment, the delicate lines threatening to shatter like glass. Disease is difficult to confront, and yet we’re invited to consider how imperfect we are and witness another human come to grips with that on the page. “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe,” reads – like most of the poems here – like a diary welded into poetic form. Beginning with a question about defecation, the poem goes on to discuss memory and old partners, with Ritvo saying, “I go to the bathroom to visit my ex-girlfriends./ They’re two lily pads, fire-white – one in the bath,/ the other in the toilet – and they call me Kermit,/ and beg Kermit to swim.” Here, there’s an implication of rumination if not masturbation, which is separate from sincere desire. Ritvo is trying to remember a time when he had more control over his body, and that time happens to feature lust without caution. In this way, the collection deals with male-centric considerations of death, as Ritvo recalls and tries to reconnect with those things that made him feel masculine. In the wake of his cancer, he feels needy and broken, and the bathroom is a way to escape that, if even for a minute.
Cancer and death-focused poems form the bulk of the collection. Ritvo is at his most wistful in these, which lends him a unique command over the poem. It’s as if surrender unlocks a new capacity to render his internal life. In “Poem to My Liter,” he captures the frustration with having no cure, compounding it with a sober-eyed acceptance of the inevitable. In discussing an attempt to grow tumors in mice as a way to experiment with treatment options, Ritvo writes, “The mice only have a tumor each, in the leg./ Their tumors have never grown up. Uprooted/ and moved. Learned to sleep in any bed/ the vast body turns down. Before the tumors can spread/ they bust open the legs of the mice. Who bleed to death.” The tone isn’t one of anguish or peril, but resignation. The violence takes on an almost comedic quality in the futility of the endeavor. Here, the clarity Ritvo has allows him to guide the flow of information with laser-like precision, gifting him the ability to wring pathos, carnage, and disappointment out of such plainspoken lines. In “Poem to my Dog, Monday, on Night I Accidentally Ate Meat,” this sober understanding plays out in the tender connection Ritvo feels with his dog, who is also dying. Lines like, “Monday, it’s leaving me too./ Why does life love flowers most/ when they are still bulbs?” or “Monday, with your millions of small horns,/ I will slip behind your poodle eyes/ loading myself like a cartridge of light./ I will live in your small ecstatic brain/ and take your life,/ and you can take mine,/ and we won’t give our lives to cancer,/ but to each other” wind through the connection between man and beast. Here, that sense of maleness found in “When I Criticize You, I’m Just Trying to Criticize the Universe,” mutates into a different shade, and in that shade, utter desperation and love are found.
It may be uncouth to say, but in making room for death, Ritvo is able to write truly remarkable poems. Craft and language are part of that dazzlement, yes, but it’s the sheer force of feeling that sinks each piece like a stone, right into the pumping heart of sympathy. In Ritvo’s capable hands, love, mercy, and memory become tools that form the scaffolding of poetry, easing into demise like a river. As he writes in “Crow Says Goodbye,” this is how love functions, so, “Have some sympathy for the great spasms/ with which I must open myself to love/ and close again, and open.”