Max Ritvo is a poet of ecstasies.
He is a transmogrifier of suffering and holder of “bird-shaped hope.” He is also a Realist, a gifted comic, an astronomer, a child genius, a Surrealist, a brainiac, and a purveyor of pure (and impure) joy. His work is composed, quite simply, of candor, of splendor, and of abandon. It is suffused with mammalian warmth; it is a totem of incarnation and astonishment. In the diffused lavender corridors of an impending death, his work is glittered and littered, riddled and rattled with life, its compassions and passions, its fervor.
To be in the audience of the wildly compelling theaters of Ritvo’s first manuscript, Eight Reincarnations, is to be transfixed as you watch (and listen to) a young man at the absurdly slender edge of the proscenium of his lines, ready and able (and wildly willing!) to fall, but not falling, not letting go, not at all. He risks the ridiculous. He courts the sublime. Just when you’re ready (wide-eyed, concerned) to ask, is he really willing to commit that to the page?—he has already done it, and there’s no turning back.
And you want him to go on, on with the impossible stardusts of his effulgences, his brilliance of ebullience (unlike any other). You want this work to stay put—in this world and the one after as well. He can write the dreadful beautiful. He can make the unbeautiful humane. You want his look on life to go on, ceaselessly. His donnée is boundlessness, but clenched by the hard, unbittered gasp (and grasp) of finity. Not just the abstract kind that we can all imagine, all confect. But the concrete kind. The real real world. The what-it-is-to-be-present-in-this-life, transformed by the constant nearness of its end. “Jesus, it’s beautiful. / Great mother of big apples it is a pretty / World,” Kenneth Patchen wrote. “O you’re a merry bastard Mr. Death / And I wish you didn’t have no hand in this game / Because it’s too damn beautiful for anybody to die.” Ritvo: “We are becoming a bulb / in the ground of the living, / in the winter of being alive.”
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
—my 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 I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
In the distance, behind several voices
haggling, I hear a sound like heads
clicking together. Like a game of pool,
played with people by machines.
Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together
I think death comes at blindness.
I think pupils are sails,
and death is when the wind goes slack.
Winter, by being so white,
it is trying to talk to me—
closing communicated to one who sees death
as white worms
riddling the apple of the eye.
You think death comes at the cessation of touch.
You are a flower bulb
which can feel even in the winter earth:
coldness as its body
The cold is a line that will not bend,
drawn through you foot to head.
Heat is a planet
fleeing its own cold line,
its primary chill.
I have written this poem inside of you.
I am clutched in with your mother blood,
feeling your bends in the dark,
becoming a soft bend in your body.
I feel a circle grow in your stomach.
We are becoming a bulb
in the ground of the living,
in the winter of being alive.
Poem About You Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid
You chase my face with your face
by making my faces:
Your lips form my stricken crescent
and mime the moving moon of my mouth.
You catch up and have my thoughts.
Your brain is like a gold gauze
bound around my brain.
You have my thoughts faster than I can.
The mouth made from our lips
pours chilly water
out the pipe.
We go faster than I imagined
my mind built time or built itself.
I see behind the documents:
the gauze swelling into a halo,
my will not taken from me,
but expanded beyond anything I could want.
Thou art me being me faster than I can be myself—
even the shock I feel in my body,
like the dead center of the guitar.
We think bird,
and I feel gaseous wings ripen in my chest,
and rattle in my snout.
We think bird,
and the watermelons of my lungs
sob the sugar of flight.
Radiation in New Jersey, Convalescence in New York
I come from the place where the blender is the moon,
where the green bean is the body and the sun,
where the zip-lock bag prevents the lovers
from breathing the same evening
as they lay on their love-skin
of murdered animal.
I come from a place where the water
is so barren that when you drink it
the fish of the throat die,
causing malignant thirst.
What’s a dazzler like you
doing in a dump like my bed?
No bedtime story for you tonight.
The telling of the tale could kill you, little Jesus.
It’s a new, scary Jesus I think I found.
And if I share it, from that land
of harsh vinegars, blue light,
then his voice will be stronger than your voice.
I awoke on a table with blue cylinder pressed to my neck.
From deep inside the cylinder I heard a sound,
like a trembling man
opening the smallest can of soup—
a can with only one green bean in it.
Next to him a woman is completely silent.
Feeding him the green bean
becomes her only thought,
even when he tries to admire her beauty
or make her laugh.
She folds into the bean’s mind,
a blinding, salty emerald,
and nobody will listen to his news.
The sound wasn’t a gun.
It was a kiss.
It’s my mother—
I have to go.
Everything feels so good to me:
my wool hat,
the cocoon of dryness in my throat.
The sound of burning vegetables
is like a quiet, clean man folding sheets.
But I keep having thoughts—
this thought always holding at bay the next thought
until it sours into yet
another picture of dissatisfaction,
that loves to be thought,
another pear, ugly
as the head
of a man who is thinking.
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
head-long into the painting.
Instead I have this picture of dissatisfaction,
the thought not rising, but splitting in half
on the unanswered question of lightning,
like a black glove
that you mistake for a man
in the middle of a blizzard.
My mind is
three black bulls on
three hills of sand, far apart.
My loved ones
sleep in clay hollows.
If I turn from you, you will go back
to your clay hollow.
The aqueducts of the city of my language
clot with lather.
The world is bad
and I am bad.
Three black bulls on three hills
of sand, are stretching apart
the sheet of my language, crawling with ants.
This is the basis
upon which we seek company:
I am bad,
the world is bad.
Three black bulls stomp the hills of sand
into blistered glass.
Their hooves swelter against these
I am so sorry that you have come to this mind of mine.
Anatomic and Hydraulic Chastity
Instead, the world is olive oil,
and I’m a repulsive water sack.
Pleasure? My greatest pleasure?
Getting out of the way.
Sometimes I can almost feel
what the world would be like without me:
like an olive green paperback
shutting a perfect story flat—
no longer crimped by
a spasmodic paperclip miming
the shape of his genitals
with his nauseated, skinny body.
O to be full of olive oil,
O for the skull to be a case
of olive oil,
For the kiss to mingle freely
the oils in two skulls,
for a telepathic love in the shared mouth:
a slow whorl spooling from the craniums
to the ceramic lips.
O for meals to be as peaceful
as groping out for rosemary—
the hands unearthly, frictionless,
in a garden.
Keep aggrieving me, oily flavors
in your curvaceous bowl,
your charwoman, a pillar of salt.
Don’t leave Maxcat alone
or I’ll have to see exactly
what I have in store for me.