Max and I were first introduced to each other in 2015 and immediately bonded through a series of ensuing e-mail and text correspondences—usually about poetry, but also about painting, glass blowing, and balloon races, among other things. In addition to this more casual exchange, I read and gave Max editorial feedback on early versions of Four Reincarnations. Indeed, I loved the poems I found within its pages so much that I ended up publishing several of them in The Iowa Review, where I serve as the poetry editor, and in Horsethief Magazine, a publication I co-founded with Justin Boening.
In one of our last exchanges, Max sent me a drawing of a courtly man in a white powdered wig with the caption, “this is you in my heart—very esteemed.” I have yet to figure out who the man in the drawing is, but I like to imagine Max identified one of my former selves, or one of his, and gifted me with an introduction to him. If you read Four Reincarnations, he’ll likely do the same thing for you—hold up a mirror in which you see a face you’ve never seen before and know, in an instant, it’s your own.
“I want my poems to be funny and to cause pain, but not lasting pain,” Max once told me. This struck me, upon hearing it, as less a riddle than an acknowledgment—a nod to ecstatic poetry’s debt to suffering (look no further than Rilke’s “let this darkness be a bell tower / and you the bell”). Max’s poetry is abundant in ecstasy and, yes, its counterpoint: he often creates a kind of double exposure in his poems, one in which grief and anxiety underlay—and are made visible through—pleasure and discovery. Take the following passage from his poem, “The Curve,” in which we are given an image that at once invokes permanence and solidity, transience and immateriality, as well as the embryonic, the cancerous, and the cosmic—this in the span of a single tercet:
When I hear the word rock,
a translucent lump
shimmers in front of the world.
Indeed, Max’s poetry—its high contrasts and stakes, as well as its subtleties—reminds me of Caravaggio’s paintings, with all their dramatic chiaroscuro and contradictory human conditions. I think of the way in which Caravaggio tends to fix the gaze of his viewers on the doomed or the erotic, often both at once (Judith Beheading Holofernes, Bacchus, The Fortune Teller); but I also think of his style, his predilection for placing the darkest shadows right up against the brightest of reflections, this the legerdemain which offers such a startling sense of depth—of reality—in his work. Max’s work, similarly, forces contrapuntal elements—not values of gray, but states of being—up against each other: Whether starvation touches abundance, humiliation gives way to revelation, or rebirth parameterizes erasure, the contrast is dramatic and makes evident a heightened state of reality.
“The bed is on fire,” opens the book, “and are you laughing?” Emergency—that intensification of the at-hand—thus initiates us into the world of Four Reincarnations and serves as nothing less than architecture, nothing more than the drama that undergirds living.The bed is on fire!—at once feverish in the erotic sense, but also in the sickbed sense, the poem lets us know it is ringing in more than one octave. Then the question: are you laughing? As in, have you forgotten life, not just death, is a joke the body plays upon the soul? And, will you laugh with me? Will you hold this body of text in your hands and find delight within its fevers?
“You leave the bed / and leave me without thought,” the poem concludes, its last four words serving double duty as adverbial phrase and noun clause. Then, in “The Senses,” just two poems further into the collection, we are given a “picture of dissatisfaction / that loves to be thought.” Note the way in which “thought” is permitted to act as both verb and noun, as interior action and interior object chasing its own tail as if it were the translucent koi gracing the cover of the book. Before the end of the first section, we then encounter the brilliant homophonic play in “Poem to My Litter,” wherein the speaker’s “litter” is not only composed of mice who have—like him—endured experimental cancer therapies, but comprises the readers of the poem, the children the speaker has never had, and that litter which is chaff.
So Max shows he is at home with wordplay subtle and overt, with rhetorical inversions and doubling—as at home as if he were one of the Metaphysical or Elizabethan poets. In his unabashed approach to human emotion, his willingness to lay bare his interiority (“I wish you would let me know / how difficult it is to love me”), and in his fearless leaps of imagination and music (“Just like neurons fire into a mind, / part habit, part chaos, / so too the world’s voices fire into a God”), Max shows us his is an imagination beyond any given school of thought. Indeed, his mind moves by such perilous bounds as to give us the unprecedented image above—that of humans as neighboring neurons, the exchange of their voices the very synapses of god.
Max’s influences are broad and uniquely combined, such that a discussion of a given tradition or aesthetic is limited in its helpfulness when approaching his work. Take the way Max enmeshes the meditative mode—so heavily influenced by religious traditions—with a surrealism rooted in rapid transformations, physical puzzlements, and paradoxical imagery. In “Hi, Melissa,” he writes, “When I kiss your ankle I am silencing an oracle. / The oracle speaks from the hill of your ankle.” In an act more of alchemy than of stylistic grafting, Max transforms a human ankle into the hill from which a new gospel might be spoken.
As a writer of Jewish descent, Max was familiar with the gallows humor of such masterful writers as Rachmil Bryks and Bohumil Hrabal, who rendered human suffering as inevitable as it is unnecessary, as hilarious as it is devastating, and both of whom drew upon classic Jewish folklore to invoke the figure of “the sacred fool”—that complicated character who fuses innocence and the irrational, who stumbles into the presence of the divine and marks it human. Max, time and again, in his own poems, casts himself as such a figure, as a man reduced, irreverent, and, therefore, closer to the gods who may, of course, be other versions of himself. This refraction of selfhood is meaningful not only in the context of Jewish history and literature, whose surrealism he once noted is less “cool” and “more imperiled” than its French counterpart, but also within the context of fighting cancer. Max, through his invocation of the hallucinatory and blurred “I”—“I” that is “cathedral / of musical blood,” “three black bulls,” a caterpillar, “the people,” a litter of mice—is able to enact the singular yet multiplicative suffering one endures in the attempt to live.
It might be important to note here that Max is on the same page with William Blake when it comes to pity, an emotion so often marked by condescension. Max not only doesn’t ask for the pity of his readers, he shuns it in “To Randal, Crow Stealer, Lord of the Greenhouse:” “Do you pity my imagination? It will kill you. / My mother will kill you. / She is my imagination.” No, rather what he seems to ask is that the reader risk imperilment with him. After all, these poems risk themselves, their lives, at every turn. They plunge and leap and strike the ground. They enact fatality, not only in the way their lines snap and extend, but in their will to pass beyond the realm of the possible-to-be-lived: “Your eyes are globes and hunched beneath them / is my ghost who blinks them shut,” he writes in, “Mommy Harangues Poor Randal.”
Perhaps tellingly, Louise Glück, in her blurb of the book, refers to Four Reincarnations as “an extraordinary body of work.” Body of work. It seems to me that Glück understands something at the pulmonary matrix of this book, which is its desire to have a life of its own—to encapsulate the warmth, endurance, fragility, dolor, laughter, longing, dictions, and contradictions that reside in a single human body. In the great modernist poems, it can take the resurrection of that body just to tell someone how you feel: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). But in Max’s poems, the act of telling requires not just the resurrection of the speaker, which marks a return to the life one left behind, but a collaborative and ongoing reincarnation, a return to life by the very means of radical transformation: “You catch up and have my thoughts. / Your brain binds around mine, a gold gauze” (“Poem About My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid”).
The thought of reincarnation haunts me. I’ve carried the polysyllabic bulk of it around in the back pocket of my brain since reading Max Ritvo’s book of poems, and I have yet to understand the breadth of the word’s magic (a task for the ages, to be sure). What I can say, though, is this: if Shakespeare’s metaphor for literature was procreation—imagination of Reader impregnated by imagination of Writer—then Max’s metaphor for poetry might be reincarnation—imagination of Writer resurrected within imagination of Reader. Surely, with each new reading of Four Reincarnations, each instance of Max’s words animated into new experiences and memories,he proves his metaphor is less hypothesis than reality. “I hear my own voice, in the moaning,” he writes in the fourth and final section of the book, “from the world beyond,” which might be to say, this world.
by Max Ritvo
Milkweed Editions, September 2016
$22.00 hardcover; ISBN: 978-1-57131-490-1