Reader, please forgive me if my review of Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions, 2018) is more emotional, more personal, more besotted than a review should perhaps be. As a nurse practitioner who cut her milk teeth watching young gay men die in droves in the 1990s—the decade that begot Max—I confess to being (at least at first) more absorbed with the poet’s story than with his poems. And, Reader, I feel I must call him Max; his poems have brought me that close to him, and the norm of calling the poet’s voice “the speaker” simply won’t hold here.
Max died at age twenty-five on August 23, 2016, after a prolonged bout with cancer. Although he achieved many accomplishments during his lifetime, he did not live to see his poems published in Poetry, the publication of his first book, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016), or the forthcoming publications, The Final Voicemails and Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship (to be released by Milkweed Editions on September 18). How rare to read a poet’s entire canon of work published mainly after his death. (Yes, it brings Emily Dickinson to mind).
In his first book, Four Reincarnations, the speaker’s voice is somewhat tentative and the metaphors riotously elevated, as in “Black Bulls”:
my mind is
three black bulls on
three hills of sand, far apart
However, in The Final Voicemails Max’s words engage with doubt and certainty in a manner that goes well beyond mere knowledge. They convey the sort of wild and strange imagery that so many contemporary poets strive to achieve, but in these poems, there is no room for hyperbole. Max has created a sort of meta-metaphor, images that are both metaphor and simultaneously mean exactly what they say. These poems offer a surreal, in- and out-of-body candor that, at times, can be devastating to read.
In The Final Voicemails, Max even speaks of tense metaphorically while, at the same time, his failing body embodies the limits of his present tense, as in “Boy Goes to War”:
Even present tense has some of the grace of past tense
what with all the present tense left to go.
And later in the same poem:
His whole life he has balanced himself
on an absurdly slender proscenium
and as he continues to edge out
he can’t tell if it isn’t maybe a gangplank.
Max achieves that rare conflation of desolation and exultation that may only be possible when facing death. He personifies objects, vilifies loved ones, compartmentalizes body parts, projects his emotions, shape-shifts at will, and creates characters that may or may not exist, but are humanly and inhumanly real to him, and through him, to us. Throughout these poems, Max is ever part-in and part-out of his body and always acutely aware of time’s movements. Again from “Boy Goes to War”: “[T]he boat’s still in port. The cat’s alive. Pantry’s packed.”
His desire to be naked in body as well as in voice gives a sharp, even combative tone in “Quiet Romance,” where he says:
And let nobody put a shirt on me.
Let death put her cool head
on my stomach for a listen.
It seems the difference between the voice in Four Reincarnations and in The Final Voicemails relates to Max’s increasing proximity to death. When I call the voice in Four Reincarnations tentative, I refer to lines such as these in “Holding a Freshwater Fish in a Pail Above the Sea,” in which ‘sea’ and ‘koi’ are metaphors:
I walk in the sea
and hold my sweet
fish above me,
no small feat.
frail, white-eyed koi.
Where he wants space
he will get salt.
These metaphors are brilliant, the ocean “reminding me of my mother” and “frail koi” the child, the patient, who must too soon understand that there are trade-offs for life itself. Max’s clarity in Four Reincarnations is most potent when he speaks of cancer, his intimate knowledge of these trade-offs, the spaciousness of more life (the ocean) in exchange for the poisoning (salt) of chemo. However, in The Last Voicemails, Max’s clarity is most elegiac, most crystalized, when he speaks of death in metaphors such as “gangplank,” “ghost in the bridge,” “bedroom for… a lobe of lung,” “big white bed… in my heart.” These metaphors brim with his truth.
In “Amuse-Bouche,” he startles us again with his authoritative vision of both life and death:
each plate obliterates the last
until I no longer mourn the destroyed plate,
but only mewl for the next,
And the chef is God,
whose faithful want only the destruction
of His prior miracles, to make way
for new ones.
Max vacillates. Who wouldn’t? Is death a miracle or destruction? Nowhere have I seen or heard the loneliness of death voiced so poignantly. In “Quiet Romance”:
I can hear already
a roaring in the distance,
half salt, half horse,
I like this, I’m scared
but so’s the sound. We’ll both
And in “The Soundscape of Life Is Charred By Tiny Bonfires”:
You’re in this alone. That means there’s nobody to stop you.
You’re almost at the finish line.
But first you have to pick a finish line.
Others may find more hope than I am sharing here in this review. Max’s tenderness for those he is leaving behind is abundantly voiced; his playfulness and self-deprecation are brightly alive. He possesses an inner strength that blends disaster and joy in the same cup. In “Name My Time of Death and See What I Do to You,” he offers this line, one that astonishes with its deep sense of spiritual well-being: “my fear is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
In the Editor’s Note by Louise Glück, who did the painful work of sifting through Max’s late poems and choosing what to include in The Final Voicemails, Glück explains why she also chose to include, in a separate section of the book, poems from Max’s “extraordinary undergraduate thesis from Yale,” titled “Mammals.” These too are luminous poems, written before Four Reincarnations and The Final Voicemails, and serve to remind us “that the work of twenty-year-olds is not necessarily practice work.” Max first dealt with cancer at age sixteen, and even in these early poems, he is not afraid to look at death poetically, metaphorically, or as an actual presence in his life.
Me: What is my future?
Shon: Flowers. You are marrying flowers.
Max paid a high price for his acumen; he was also in possession of an incisive and dazzling mind. I owe him a great deal for being able to read his words, describing a journey that we all are on but typically have no words for. Max’s words have added meaning to my life and I am a woman for whom without meaning, might well consider suicide.
A bit of advice, Reader: Don’t read this book if you are not committed to totally engage with its struggle; not prepared to be pushed beyond comfort; not able to confront the fact that you will die, hopefully at the end of a long life. Max left us a legacy of wisdom in poetic reflections few have surpassed.
But I fervently hope you will read The Final Voicemails. Max is trying to tell us something. We should listen.
[Max Ritvo was an enormously gifted poet who died at age twenty-five, two years ago yesterday, on August 23, 2016, after a prolonged bout with cancer. His posthumous collection, The Final Voicemails, will be released on September 18, 2018. – Ed.]