Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo
Milkweed Editions, 2016
Wonderfully strange and achingly poignant, Max Ritvo’s debut collection of poetry, Four Reincarnations, is vibrant with small worlds. Every line is a fusion of matter spinning into something new and unpredictable. In his book, Ritvo questions and catalogs the ephemeral moments of these crowded places.
Ritvo approaches the subjects in Four Reincarnations—the body, death, illness, relationships, and reconciliation—with awe and mystery. His language is so sharp and surprising that it is easy to forget he is not only creating the poems in the collection but also exploring them. “Radiation in New Jersey, Convalescence in New York” begins with unexpected imagery: “I come from the place where the blender is the moon, / where the green bean is the body and the sun.” These lines, like many other first lines in the collection, are immediately captivating.
Ritvo’s rich imagery is one of the strongest facets of his work, providing both inventiveness and connection to other ideas and forms of art. For example, in the collection’s first poem, “Living It Up,” the image of a bed on fire evokes the paintings of surrealist René Magritte (such as “The Gradation of Fire”) that depict undamaged everyday objects engulfed in flames. In “The Blimp,” an intravenous bag assumes the surreal qualities of filmmaker/animator Terry Gilliam’s work as if it were an almost-living mechanical monstrosity:
I thought above my head there was a blimp
and it trailed hoses covered in tacks
some of which inhaled
and some of which blew air.
Ritvo’s images are strange but familiar, which alleviates their threatening aspects. That his poems seem both unpredictable and recognizable is indicative of his talent for language and imagery.
Other dualities stir throughout Four Reincarnations. In “Afternoon,” time is both stretched and fleeting as death becomes the moment of hesitation when a person leaves the house feeling as if they have forgotten something. Ritvo’s effective use of line breaks and understatement portrays death as a relatable experience:
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
Many of Ritvo’s poems concern his relationships with other people, which seem to ebb and flow as he shifts from detachment to embracing connection. In “Poem About My Wife Being Perfect and Me Being Afraid,” he writes:
You chase my face with your face
by making my faces:
Your lips, right after mine, form a crescent
and wax and wane with all the moons
of my mouth.
These poems prove to be the most shattering in the collection, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ritvo is also writing about the difficulty of maintaining those connections during illness.
Max Ritvo passed away in August 2016, after a long battle with cancer. Midway through his book, he delivers one of his most lasting lines by beginning “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night” with a simple directive: “Just do things that are meaningful to you.” Poetry was quite clearly important to Ritvo, just as Four Reincarnations is important to poetry.
Dane Hamann works as an editor for a textbook publisher in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University, where he also currently serves as the poetry editor of TriQuarterly. His current work can be found in DASH Literary Journal, riverbabble, Water~Stone Review, and November Bees, among other places.