Review by Meghan Maguire Dahn
There is a room. In that room a man is perched on the shelf. He is proud and shorn and he is flanked by two paper Viking ships. On my fancy days, I light a candle made to smell of myrrh. It is not very smoky and it never stings the lungs, so it is not really myrrh. Even so, it is a pleasant enough facsimile. Let me tell you something: in Herodotus, our author, exiled, tells the natural history of a phoenix. What silliness! you might interrupt. Well, just wait. Herodotus tells us they only die every few hundred years and when they do, their progeny seal them up in an egg of myrrh and fly them to the Nile. So now you know.
The man on the shelf is Max Ritvo, who I met and befriended during our time in Columbia University’s MFA program. Max died of Ewing’s Sarcoma last August at the age of 25. I’ve situated the picture of Max before his PSA Chapbook Fellowship reading between the tiny, fearsome Vikings and the fake myrrh because I think it would have delighted him. If you knew Max, you know that there were few earthly pleasures that matched delighting him.
One of the areas of mutual delight and glee Max and I fostered in each other was for fitness programs. We had both trained in athletics somewhat seriously as young people. This kind of work, I think, gives people, especially young people, a kind of playful attitude toward discomfort. It is undoubtedly a different thing to have a coach or teacher than to have a video of someone shouting encouragements to you through the screen, everyone complicit in the obvious fiction that they can see you. And yet, there’s something undeniably loving and lovable about that kind of complicity, even in spandex and trainers, inspirational platitudes flying around like beads of sweat. When Max died, I was in the midst of a home fitness program that asked me occasionally to shout “MAX OUT!” while doing squat jumps, burpees, or high knees. I did this facing the picture of Max. Max out, Max out. Max out.
Max’s debut, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016) offers readers fields of play in which the body has limits, in which language is our own best beast that runs along inside us on these fields. Cultural theorist Elaine Scarry has suggested that the body is pre-lingual, that our experience of extreme pain is extra-lingual. Max provides another position in Four Reincarnations. In poems like ‘Curve’ from the first section, Max proposes a decidedly incarnational take on language. He asks us to imagine an abstraction, ‘call it X,’ that wanted a body. When X was dissatisfied with our ‘animal bodies,’ ‘it made language’ and ‘language forced X into the body / like carbonation into a soda.’ So, language is not some hard cut gem that sits on our finger, separate from us, but signifying. No, it’s the thing that makes us, us.
He continues the poem with a turn to the particular: ‘When I hear the word rock, / a translucent lump / shimmers in front of the world. // To its right, a piece of glass cuts a clear finger, / and to its left, there pulses a rocky, low cold crust.’ He’s showing us how he would play a move on the field he’s created. From there, the poem turns radically particular, almost shutting us out from the game, with a memory of a bicycle ride with a specific ‘you.’ But at the same time as the episode is addressed to a ‘you,’ Max is generous with it. He opens back up to an assessment of the field of play (‘We imagine a vertical meadow / complicated into our world needlessly […]. / This is purity.’). That motion from an abstraction to a particular to a specific memory is a gesture that Max repeats throughout the book. You can take yourself away from the mat, but you can’t stop yourself running forms.
Another poem that treats language as an embodied phenomenon is ‘The Watercolor Eulogy,’ written for his friend, the painter Melissa Carroll, who also died of Ewing’s Sarcoma at a young age. He writes that
There is a dead language buried in English.
There is a word no one remembers
for a temple
with a bowl of millet sealed
in each brick.
When you are buried, the word
will grow a ssa sound.
Its meaning will change
to specify you as the builder.
Max has set up a kind of nested enshrinement for language, but he has shifted the usual connotations of the shrine to make it a place of active embodiment. The dead language buried within English becomes animated by Carroll’s death, so that she is an agent enshrined in English, making the stuff at its very core alive. Max goes on to say that he will ‘join [her] / among the terms / for tiny bottles of defunct potions / and no longer understood passions / and together [they’ll] bury / [their] own particular I love you.’ Again, this is an instance wherein enshrinement is an opportunity for the reanimation of a ‘defunct’ language, an act for which the lived experience of the words ‘I love you’ (inseparable from the actual loving) are perpetuated. They are so perpetual, in fact, that Max adds an addendum in the form of the short poem ‘Hi, Melissa,’ in which he continues to hone the picture of heaven he had laid out before. He writes ‘I have spoken to you of heaven — / I simply meant the eyes are suns that see.’ For Max, language is lived-in, evolving, and never really dead, even in its most radical individuations.
The emphasis of the first section of Four Reincarnations is on what Max called ‘[witnessing] the birth of the universe’ in an interview with the playwright Sarah Ruhl in The New Republic. But Max doesn’t fall easily into the trope of the optimistic, plucky ill person, and in the second section’s ‘reincarnation’ the speaker goes through what Max called ‘a nasty break up.’ He frames this break up using two main characters – Crow and Randal, the latter being an allusion to the ill-fated protagonist of an early Anglo-Scottish border ballad called ‘Lord Randal.’ In the ballad young Randal ‘goes into the greenwood’ with a woman who ends up poisoning him. He returns home to his mother, finds he is dying, and through a highly formal interlocution, they work out his will.
Max’s Randal is a grotesque. He appears throughout the section doing such things as igniting flowers for spite, ‘blubbering to mommy,’ ‘defecating over your eyebrows: a unibrow,’ watching ‘a spider [throw] up the fat / of a bee,’ having teeth ‘for meat,’ etc. He also steals Crow, who is another incarnation of Max – a liminal animal that traffics between life and death, and allows Max the comfort of forgetting how he feels and ‘[finding himself] / moving, joy, moving!’ By giving an incarnation like Randal such real estate in the book, Max has provided a model for fighting against the limiting stereotype of the heroic terminally ill person. Yes, there are moments of the heroic – the beauty, for instance, of the ‘Bluefin tuna at fifty miles an hour’ that shush and eclipse the dazed thoughts of the fisherman in ‘Lyric Complicity for One’ even as Max describes them as ‘black-bodied cloaks for guts.’ But this heroic beauty makes room for disgust and suffering and spitefulness and rage.
All of this exhibits an attitude that Max described as the ‘yes, and’ process of improvised comedy (a field he also was active in). This process refers to the rule in improv that, regardless of how absurd or unfamiliar a proposition is that your partner puts forward, you say yes to it. Then you follow up with an ‘and’ to which they say ‘yes’ as well. Perhaps no section of the book embodies this spirit of ‘yes, and’ – in which we can practice careful attentiveness to the world and then build on it – than the third section, which ‘tells of perfect love in a time of cancer.’
In the opening poem of the third section – ‘Poem about My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid’ – Max presents us with the kind of ‘yes, and’ play he sees in improv. He opens: ‘You chase my face with your face / by making my faces’ – a veritable how-to manual. It is true that the poem is describing intimacy, the kind of intimacy in which his wife’s ‘brain binds around [his], a gold gauze,’ but he’s given us a game that we can play, too. This is a game that stands, justified, with love and fear (yes, and). As the two progress through the mimesis, they ‘go faster than [he] imagined / [his] mind built time or built itself’ which has the feeling of a bicycle built for two the first time you ride it down a steep hill. But even with this fear, radically with this fear, Max brings us to a beautiful closing image: where the golden gauze of shared neural pathways becomes odd blood, becomes halo. So, in a time of cancer, you can still build up the integuments of a perfect love.
Love in this section extends to others as well: his exes (‘two lily pads, fire-white—one in the bath / the other in the toilet’), his shrink, his doctors, his mother (‘the sound wasn’t a gun. / It was a kiss.’), his dog Monday, and indeed ‘everything living / that won’t come with [him] / into this sunny afternoon.’ And, just as he opened the section with a love that holds fear in it too, he closes it with a love that coexists with the sinister. In ‘Afternoon,’ the speaker describes his ‘body lit up / like when [he leaves his] house / without [his] wallet.’ He goes on to describe how his body ‘lights up for life / like all the wishes being granted in a fountain / at the same instant— / all the coins burning the fountain dry.’ And even in the midst of this bodily abundance—yes, and—Max closes the poem with a dark image, that of ‘a sound like heads / clicking together. Like a game of pool / played with people by machines.’
Max describes the fourth section as one that ‘sends poems from an underworld.’ He and I sat together at a lecture by Henri Cole. Cole spoke of his time in the east, where he developed an aversion to using fours in his poems. No quatrains, no poems with four stanzas, no books with four sections. Culturally, four was the number of death and Cole did not want death in his poems. It would have been absolutely anathema to Max to deny death a place in the book, and in the fourth section he writes poems that pack away his ‘poor little future.’ There is a preponderance of containers in this section: a shoebox, a sack, a flipbook, a boat, a pinewood box, a fish tank, an egg, a living room, a silence, pockets, a vacuum bag, a mouth, a well, a kiln, a suit of zippers, a tea circle, ‘a fire-hoop where the flames point in,’ and on and on. There are so many containers, that everything begins to have the feeling of containment – suffering is a container, paths are containers, soil is a container and so is responsibility.
But there are moments of relief, too, as in ‘Snow Angels’ in which Max picks up again the idea that language creates a field of play. He says ‘we call it snow / when the parts of God, // too small to bear, contest our bodies / for the possession of our smallest sensations.’ This is a kind of opening up of the container that is the body, so that it becomes enmeshed with suffering. This short poem proposes a field on which words hold contradictions – God plays for senses, suffering is a kind of cohesion. Cohesion holds in itself the chance to come apart.
And there is relief, too, in the final poem of the book, ‘Universe Where We Weren’t Artists.’ The speaker describes a reward – his ‘deepest beloveds’ are to pick where he will rest. The reward confounds finality: they are ‘three sweet hunters’ who ‘seek the glass lens // that would explode the image / of our prey.’ He invites his beloveds to reincarnate him ‘when the breath starts to be ragged.’ The beloveds are the other two hunters, but they are also the readers of the book. He asks us to ‘tickle [him] […] / so that the raggedness becomes confused.’ He is granting us a space in which breath can co-mingle (which is, of course, the etymological root of ‘confuse’). He is giving us a field – even if it is a ‘fat-soaked bog,’ even if it is ‘white mud’ on which we can come back again and again and play.
I do not want anyone to encase Max in an egg of myrrh and drop him in the Nile. How could you want such a thing? Four Reincarnations is Max’s first-last book. It is a thing you can open up whenever you’d like.
Meghan Maguire Dahn grew up in the middle of the woods, alongside fisher cats and deer, beavers and coyotes, and a whole unintended aviary. Her first poem was published in Highlights Magazine and read primarily in waiting rooms by children nervous about getting shots or stitches. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, The Iowa Review on-line, the Cincinnati Review, the Boog City Reader, Blunderbuss, The Journal, Poetry Northwest, Phantom Limb, the Long River Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Cartographer, and ellipsis…a journal of art and culture. She was a winner of the 2014 Discovery/92nd Street Y Poetry Prize (judges: Eduardo Corral, Rosanna Warren, Susan Mitchell, and John Ashbery). She has an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She lives steps away from Manhattan’s only forest.