Poetry and death have always had a close, paradoxical relationship. The death of poetry, the poetry of death, the Dead Poets Society: what are these phrases if not elegant misnomers? Poetry, after all, is so life affirming, so full of beauty and truth, isn’t it? The further we wade into these texts, and the poets behind them, the more we come to realize, suddenly, that poetry cannot save us from our own demise. Almost all poems confront the end, whether explicitly or not. The only remaining question is: how?
Max Ritvo’s last collection, The Final Voicemails, out September 18 from Milkweed Editions, provides answers to the aforementioned question, but no universal axioms. That is because Max Ritvo—the author of this book as well as Four Reincarnations, the “prodigiously gifted poet” according to Louise Glück in the Editor’s note, the luminous, electric, absurdly clever artist—was not a prophet. His early death, which consumes this work, did not provide him with any illuminations nor hallucinations about poetry at large. Ritvo refuses to wade with us in our fruitless investigation on life and its supposed meaning. Instead, he gives us poetry, so affirming, so beautiful, and so mortal.
“I was told my proximity/to the toxin would promote/changes to my thinking, speech, and behavior,” Ritvo writes in the title poem, which opens The Final Voicemails. At a first glance, it serves as a preface to the narrative thread of the work as a whole, while delineating Ritvo’s style as a poet. His direct, nearly confessional tone mixes seamlessly with the musicality of the verse (particularly in the sonic relation between “proximity” and “toxin”), creating a flow that seeps into every page. Wherever he takes us (from restaurants, to houses, to hospitals) this distance between himself and the end of himself shrinks.
As only Ritvo can do, these grave topics are approached with a candid humor, as comforting to the reader as it is necessary to the poem itself. “When I die,” Ritvo writes in the poem, “Quiet Romance,” “make sure/dad doesn’t screw a hat on me/to keep the brains in./And let nobody put a shirt on me.” As the poems unfold, we gain insight into Ritvo’s complex emotional state on his impending death. At the end of this poem, Ritvo writes, “I like this, I’m scared, but/so’s the sound. We’ll both/be guests.” Again, we may find these lines darkly humorous but somehow profoundly tender, as if he too is a guest to his own emotional residue.
At times, Ritvo’s signature humor ventures into the absurd. In the poem, “Earthquake Country Before Final Chemotherapy,” Ritvo imagines his skeleton leaving his body, “out onto the street,” where, “the mist was tricking his eyes.” Here, Ritvo’s imaginative sensibilities are confronted, powerfully, with his firm self-awareness, “If I were alive I’d have told him/I was nothing like what he was feeling.” This dichotomy between the mind and the body relays itself as a dialogue in The Final Voicemails, adventurous and casual, like close friends in the midst of several ongoing conversations. Ritvo addresses these subjects with his patented wit, such as in the poem “Cachexia,” which begins, “Today I woke up in a body/that wasn’t my body anymore./It’s more like my dog—/for the most part obedient,/warming to me/when I slip it goldfish or toast.”
Ritvo’s humor, though, is complemented, not undermined, by his palpable struggles. Hunger, in particular, weighs on both his body and mind in The Final Voicemails. He writes in the poem, “Amuse-Bouche,” “We, in the West, eat until we want/to eat something else,/or to stop eating altogether.” This moment of broad cultural observation is met with personal experience, as he later writes about a chef who, “puts a small plate in front of me/knowing I will hunger on for it.” This hunger often manifests itself in a need to feel hunger, an anxiety that is felt by others, “Mother says Eat something: I’m giving up on you.” Surprisingly, but somehow also inevitably, hunger is not immune to Ritvo’s sleek wit, as he writes in the poem, “December 29,” “The waiter brought me two fortune cookies./One future was traumatic enough.”
When reading the previous line, one wonders about the nature of Ritvo’s future, a topic only broached in The Final Voicemails. Appeals to the afterlife, both for Ritvo and the world in which he occupied, are sparingly addressed. This is not a criticism of Ritvo’s work, as these considerations often plague last books. Ritvo’s audacity as a writer comes, in this case, when the future is relayed to his present, such as in the poem, “Name My Time of Death and See What I Do To You” which ends, “my fear is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Ritvo’s declaration here is bold while maintaining its subtlety. We may be inclined to ask fear of what? and then realizing, foolishly, how rhetorical that sounds in this context.
While the future takes a backseat in The Final Voicemails, the past is not dwelled on either. I should mention that the second half of this book, entitled Mammals, contains poems from Ritvo’s undergraduate thesis at Yale. These poems deserve an entirely separate review, dedicated solely to them. What is immediately noticeable about them is how Ritvoesque they are. While this statement may seem obvious, it is quite rare for juvenilia to feel so refined, no matter how talented the poet may end up becoming. Certainly, Ritvo evolved as a poet: the poems in The Final Voicemails are sharper, and much less reliant on each other to cohere as a whole body of work. But reading Mammals does shape, or reshape, the way that one reads The Final Voicemails, as if we can hear the previous messages and phone calls from a voice we continue to long for.
And this consideration brings us back to the original question: how do poets speak of their deaths? For Ritvo, particularly in this work, the question could simply be rephrased as: how do poets speak of anything besides their deaths? Death haunts this book, sometimes explicitly, and always in relation to one another. In this way, the obligation to consider death in the abstract is placed squarely on the reader. Ritvo knew he was going to die; it is as much of an assumption to his poems as the line breaks are. So, what should we take away from it?
Often, we expect so much of the dead because it is impossible for them to respond to our lingering inquiries. What they give us is all we get. And Ritvo, grinning in the moonlight, leaves us with crumbs, fragments, and voicemails. Simply put, The Final Voicemails is required reading for anyone with a curiosity into the material of death. Or, as Ritvo writes in the poem, “Your Next Date Alone,” “The stage is empty./How do you fill it?/With music.”
photo credit: Milkweed Editions