Max Ritvo’s newest, and unfortunately only, body of work Four Reincarnations can and should be taken as the physical embodiment of Ritvo himself. Subdivided into four parts, each section capable of standing on its own—a kind of reincarnation—easily represents the young poet’s mind, spirit, soul, and heart. Emotion spills from these pages, and although Ritvo’s pain is tangible, readers can also find solace in the most unexpected places in his poetry. The same was true of Ritvo, who claimed that the day he was no longer able to write would be the day when it was his time to pass. In Poem To My Litter he writes, “Even my suffering is good, in part,” good because it allowed him to create beauty out of suffering. On August 22nd, 2016, Ritvo’s mother said her son was too weak to write poetry; he passed the next morning on August 23rd in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 25 after an arduous battle with Ewing’s sarcoma.
Not only are these poems a reincarnation of Ritvo, they are also representative of a lifelong struggle that extends far beyond his struggles with cancer. They grapple with what is often at the core of every person, an ongoing search for meaning and sense of belonging. The young poet treads uncertain ground with valor, both in his battle with cancer and in his ambitious writing. Having reached the physical limits of his body, with Four Reincarnations he turns to his mind where his time is not up yet. In the poem Black Bulls he addresses the reader directly and claims, “I am sorry that you have come to this mind of mine,” yet, it is my belief that no one who has ever read his poems is sorry to have been graced with such original and breathtaking compositions.
I think the beauty of his works lies in his own self-awareness—he is unabashedly public and vulnerable, traits that go a long way in managing poetry that has the ability to go from despair to humor in a matter of lines. It is also important that he is unafraid to speak directly to his audience and does not shy away from any topic. In To Randal, Crow-Stealer, Lord of The Greenhouse he even addresses himself. He writes:
I master the technology to make bricks.
I build altars clumped with fire.
I am not afraid to light
A flower and destroy her beauty;
The crispy flower has been taken to a godly feast.
Do you pity my imagination? It will kill you.
His imagery deeply appeals to the senses with scenes of a hungry fire and pure flower in the same stanza, both images coming together in a “godly feast”, much like all of his works. Reading Ritvo, unbeknownst of his personal history, is like an out-of-body experience. Definitely autobiographical, although not necessarily confessional, Ritvo tackles topics anywhere from love to life to loss to Listerine strips. He is unafraid to light a fire in all his readers and build an altar for himself in the world of poetry.
For the young poet, art was an unconditional love, and this collection shouldn’t be read solely as his last words despite the fact that they indisputably are. Shame (and by extension self-pity) is no longer an entity for him, which he makes very clear in this heartbreaking collection. When reading Four Reincarnations, it is my instruction to devour every word meticulously, and perhaps equally important is to make sure to also read the acknowledgments. They are as raw as his prose; a perfect and intensely personal send-off. Being an artist is in itself walking close to death, and of the many contemporary poets, there is none other that treads that line so finely as Max Ritvo. Even in defeat, there is solidarity and perseverance. Despite Ritvo’s death and the recent election results, there is still unwavering hope and strength and solace.