Featured Selection: Max Ritvo

By way of introduction to this month’s Featured Selection of new poems by the late Max Ritvo, we offer an extensive interview with our own Associate Editor for Special Projects, the estimable Nancy Mitchell, followed by the work itself and some more detailed biographical material.

Featured Selection: Max Ritvo
(1990-2016)

 

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Before I became acquainted with the late Max Ritvo’s poetry, which poet Louise Glück writes, is “marked by intellectual bravado and verbal extravagance,” I first heard of this gifted young poet from a mutual friend, beloved to both Max and me. Our friend would light up as she spoke of Max’s prodigious talent, contagious joy, humor and playfulness, his wide-opened-arms-to-the-world inclusiveness, despite his ongoing struggle with a rare cancer. I remember ruefully recalling the other “gifted” young male poets I had known, and intrigued with this refreshing departure from those latter-day Werthers, promptly turned to Max Ritvo’s poetry. I was spellbound by with what Glück called his “dazzling suppleness of mind” which “manifests itself in electric transitions and unexpected juxtapositions, in wide-ranging reference and baroque allusion.” Yes; absolutely, wow, and in spades! Yet, equally stunning, especially in these featured poems, is how Max Ritvo’s uses of enchantment investigate the vicissitudes of his illness and the nuances of his relationship to it and with it. His poetry is humorous and witty, but never facetious, or coy— in poems relating to his illness, it was as if he were gently beguiling us out of our fears, inviting us, privileging us to join him in the intimate space he shares with his illness. Our mutual friend told me “Oh, you have to meet him—I hope you do meet him!” And I too hoped I might.

When Plume suggested a Special Feature interview with Max Ritvo, I was thrilled. In an answer to the pre-interview question if his health issues might be discussed as they related to the featured poems, Max wrote: “Can we limit cancer to two questions, tops? I assure you, Nancy, that my mind is a Rococo doo-dad shop and we’ll stumble on something strange that appears useless and ends up being a keystone in the way I think and feel and write.”

On August 1, 2016, I sent a salvo question to Max to which he quickly responded “Wonderful question Nancy, and I’m working on my reply. I am recovering from pneumonia, and it’s stacked with another virus, so I’m sleeping a lot. But I’m excited to spend my fresher hours working with you. I can tell we’re gonna make great dance partners. My body might be a twig right now, but my brain loves lindy-hop, and I sense yours does too!”

And we were great partners, but only because Max, terrific, agile dancer, smoothly and chivalrously covered my clumsy missteps with spins and dips through several e-mail exchanges. In the following interview there are no direct questions regarding his illness, but not because we ran out of time, or because it was the “elephant” in the room. Rather, because it was the room, the ballroom, in the Rococo Doo-dad shop where Max and I lindy-hopped until, after a few day’s pause, I received his assurance that “I’ve been hard at work flowing with you and making our magnetic dots go north to south.”

On August 23, 2016, our mutual friend called with the news— Max had passed on, passed beyond. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to wrap up this Special Feature; as long as I work on it, I’m lindy-hopping with Max Ritvo in the Rococo Doo-dad shop.

Mitchell: Hi Max! In an e-mail interview, you describe your mind as “Rococo Doodad Shop.” Ah, mine is too, but I never said it so well! So, a Rococo doodad shop…like Joseph Cornell’s studio, full of seemingly random objects collected on his walks that/who called to be picked up—to be used later? You know, I always had the sense that Cornell, rather than choosing objects for compositions, was listening to the objects choose each other… all via some dot-to-dot implicit, magnetic energy.

Your poems seem informed by this same magnetism, and I sense a similar willing suspension of intention in “He yearns for a silence that will last him/through a thread of thought/so that the thoughts listen to each other”. (THE CONQUEROR)

Am I on the right track about how your poems become?

Ritvo: You’re hitting on something deep in my mind’s eye. It’s unclear to me how much of my poem, at any given moment, is writing itself inside of me trying to write it. (I’m reminded of a dippy Harold Bloom book, Hamlet, Poem Unlimited, which is about Hamlet at some point as his play is being written turning into a real human being and fighting Shakespeare to snatch away the pen and complete the text himself. I haven’t read the book but a friend described it to me thusly and it really stuck.)

I hope my image or metaphor ends up being extremely clear by the time it’s fully come into being. Certainly by the time I’ve edited it with my rational hat on. This love of logic (perverted logic counts!) is a kind of inescapable intention in the finished poem. But I don’t think you can write an original metaphor without much suspension of intention as you write.

Mitchell: Maybe we should/could call it “suspicion” of intention, instead?

Ritvo: I like to liken something to another thing without quite knowing why I feel that way. Or even if I do feel that way. “My love for you is like a fountain,” I might write. At this point, I intend to write about my love. But the fountain lands there from a murkier part of me. The fountain-like thing in the poem, this part that finds itself in my poem beyond any particular intention, is often what you, Nancy, might call a doodad. Something that as yesterday or today progressed, seemed to glow out from the rest of time’s passage.

Mitchell: “Glowing out of the rest of time’s passage”— lit from within with its own inherent energy…again, Max, so well said. I’m thinking more kindly now of my mind’s clutter as a warehouse of doodads—a strain of music; the particular slant of light against a peach bed sheet; or on a peach in a blue bowl; a rocking chair; some particular aspect in a painting—an ear; images from books all of which comprise my “personal collection” of doodads.
I’m wondering if you find, as I do, find odd too, is that while the context from which the doodad was collected may fade, but the luminous doodads themselves remain “inevitable and permanent” as you write in MY CHAIR, vibrating with resonance until I (or they) find context in another life, maybe their real life, or Pasternak’s “sister life” of my (their) making?

Ritvo: It could be a concrete physical object that wouldn’t be evocative at all to anyone else. Perhaps I spent twenty minutes enraptured by a very boring fountain in a park because it smelled funny and I wondered if it was full of something other than water. And it wasn’t. The doodad might also be something more sublime, like a Benin bronze mask or a storm. The doodad could be a pretty—but impersonal, and thus not yet poetic—scrap of thought from a conversation or meditation. Whatever it oozes mystery like charisma.

Mitchell: And maybe the mystery, the charisma is calling only, exclusively to you, waiting for you to notice, like Rilke’s “star waiting for you to espy it?” In my more connected, (or, perhaps, more disconnected) moments I do believe that things, objects draw us toward them with a magnetic energy—they are resonating, pulsating in some dusty corner waiting for us to claim them, to give them a true context, a life. When I’m this particular “believing,” I instantly feel an affinity, connection to/with a mystery that is beyond me, but at the same time a part of me.

Ritvo: When I find a doodad out there in the world, I never know exactly what I will do with it. (I should ask my dad what to do with it, perhaps.) But I know it’ll make it into the poems somehow. Sometimes I try a doodad in one intended moment of a poem and it fails miserably. But without fail, it fits somewhere—which is to say, it finds a way to help me express my feelings, my all-too intentional heart.

Mitchell: Hmmm. Do you think the heart is indeed intentional? I somehow ascribe that quality to the brain…maybe, again, it’s my “suspicion” of intention…

Ritvo: If you want to know why doodads create original metaphors, you must know that doodads are all porous. My love is like a fountain begs so many questions of the fountain. As you answer those questions, you describe my love in a way that is idiosyncratic and complex, and usually very weird. Fountains have many parts—there’s the fluid and medium and noise that can all become different parts of my love. So even working with this porous image in the rough, we could cook something up. But the doodad fountain from the park, the one with the perplexing odor, leads to even more exciting questions. What fluid gushes from the fountain? What is the best rock or plastic to make a fountain that spews acid? What fish could live in acid?

Mitchell: Ah, I’m reminded of Mary Rose O’Reilly’s “Whatever your eye falls on—for it will fall on what you love—will lead you to the questions of your life, the questions that are incumbent upon you to answer, because that is how the mind works in concert with the eye. The things of this world draw us where we need to go.” I’m recalling one question-evoking image-doodad from my “personal” collection—”ghost ships,” floating, after years at sea, into their home harbor with nary a living soul upon them. That image—I think I first encountered it in Conrad’s Lord Jim—has haunted me for decades. Who/what piloted that ship homeward? Do we live in oblivion to natural laws, mystery among them? Do mysteries draw us, with questions, along our life’s trajectory? Maybe Rilke speaks the truth when he writes “What seems most far from you is most your own?” Ah, questions…

Ritvo: These questions emerge spontaneously, with no intention of mine making them, just curiosity. And then my intention gets to play along; to confess and describe my love, it must leap over many chasms, and fall into some, and build bridges over others. The doodad has introduced into the metaphor many lovely layers of entropy. As it settles into beauty, the doodad and my intention are sealed together.

Mitchell: Sealed, but still an alchemical dynamic? In ecological terms, a “closed” system?”

Ritvo: In a way it’s as if I’ve taken this foreign entity into my body and soul. Since what’s more my essence than my poems? Although, as I write this, I’m doing some reflecting. I think this last little bit I’ve said about sealing the doodad into me, is really the reason I write. Even if that magic comes at the expense of my original intentions for the poem. Perhaps by putting my intention in the driver’s seat, my heart in the driver’s seat, I get it all wrong. Because if a doodads’ spell is powerful enough—

Mitchell: Spell! Now you’re talking!

Ritvo: …because if a doodads’ spell is powerful enough—if it starts to braid itself into a series of questions that don’t answer My love is, so well as they do My hate is, then I’ll abandon my intention to write about what My love is very happily. (I throw out a caveat here, that if I’m an extremely emotional state—I’m less likely to notice how a failing My love is doodad could make a great My hate is doodad.) The poem is still a confession and self-expression because it still must be My hate— I could never fill a metaphor with someone else. I don’t know them well enough to do that. But perhaps I’m just willing to let out the scarves of my soul to drape over the mantelpiece where I display the doodad. I think, Nancy, my intentions may exist to serve my abundant love of doodads. Oh dear.

Mitchell: How can we tell the Doodader from the Doodad? Hello, Mr. Yeats! and a sideways hello to Key West! Now, Mr. Ritvo, I do believe you are working some voodoo-doo-dad-ing on me with these poems, via a mesmerizing lindy-hop between the doodad and the Doodader!
For example in MY CHAIR, the first line, a sentence, declares “Somewhere a man gives birth to his daughter’s rocking chair.” which is immediately contradicted and qualified by the next couple of tercets:

But he remembers he has no daughter.
The man wishes his state
was like the chair—

The chair really rocks. It is rocking,
inevitable and permanent,
from the moment it tapped the floor.

The poem continues to move away from the first bold declaration with more facts, restrictions as to why this connection between the daughter and the rocking cannot exist until it’s redeemed by the imaginary leap of naming the daughter:

Nina, he names her, and it gives the man the cough
He gets when he gazes at sky patches
In amateurish landscapes he paints—

And here— I’m so excited, so please, bear with me—the imaginative leap of naming the imaginary daughter “Nina” triggers “the cough”, a signs that the speaker is, via the magic connection of daughter and chair, in that in that terrain of the “confusing air beyond the forest”, the same confusing air where the song of Keats’s nightingale sings eternally. And what is so amazing, it that although the coughs, the “missives” are “from that confusing air” that are also “to himself.”

He realizes that his coughs are missives to himself
from that confusing air beyond the forest
And that the missives, his art,

Amount to the void in the art and beyond the forest.
That in the future, he would not experience anything,
he would be experience.

And abracadabra: here is the moment of beauty “he would not experience anything, /he would be experience” when “the doodad and the intention, —the daughter and the chair— as they settle into beauty, are sealed together.”

Dear Lucky Readers, you are about to witness the magic of Max Ritvo in the following poems. But first, you must say “Please.” Why? Because

It takes pleases to get the magic
and magic to get the love.”

FIRST ACT OF SELF-ADORATION

I’ve always been a people person,
but now people are failing me so

I’m going to be a personal person
and take everything personally.

You all have one death scene.
You’re squandering them.

My pals hoot at an ad they keep calling art,
my wife makes me squish a spider
with the last bit of gas in my tank.

Now You I like, I’d like to be able to say
to anything, even myself.

But I’m not easy to be nice to.
I say thank you plenty—but that’s all
once the favors are done.

It takes pleases to get the magic,
and magic to get the love.

 

FUNERAL BARGE FOR THE SUPERVISING ENGINEER

 

Several miles downstream of the accident a young man
lay spread on a piece of metal. The sky was of an intermediate darkness
—a few stars made their light, standing in for a mass
bruised out by our bright work: the glowing, healthy factories,

parties, and cars and even, in its small way,
the fire the man came from. The young man’s
nice symmetrical head dripped brains onto the metal.
He couldn’t get over, as he died, how the dark

smells in the breath, and the sour breading on the meat
of his memories were so remarkably familiar.
He put his hand over his heart as he remembered
the women he had abandoned, the poodle

he killed by neglect, sodas he’d let
go flat—how many deaths have I lived through?
Who is it dying? he asked himself,
and wondered why he loved the self he carried—

the self, an assembly manual for chairs
his factory ceased to build years ago,
and now, to boot, the factory was blown up.
His body, sweet even now in its filth,

takes over. It puts hands on his grief
and makes it gurgle and honk. The grief
makes the man’s body like a duck’s,
and this calms him. From the benign distance

of a white tree on the bank of the river,
he sees what a beautiful machine he made.
This is no different than kissing his wife:
he counts his heart beats, and there are three pillows

on the floor, two on the bed. There’s no escaping math,
and who would want to escape it? In order
to look forward to anything, you have to
look forward, you have to look, you have to.

 

THE CONQUEROR

 

Pooping makes me feel valiant—

my body is full of unconquerable knots
but these ones I can conquer.

With my health as it is, the me who poos is
the most ambitious me on earth.

He yearns for a silence that will last him
through a thread of thought
so the thoughts listen to each other.

He seeks a perfect peace—

But, Max who poos, what you’re looking for
is not yours to give yourself.

Such a moment could unfold here,
right here—it’s all done

and you just get to notice. In your case
you don’t notice, you get reborn.
Perpetually, unbearably:

an uncozy cloth lumping into a head,
the last snap of light,
drops of water made priceless by sad salt.

 

MY CHAIR

 

Somewhere a man gives birth to his daughter’s rocking chair.

But he remembers he has no daughter.
The man wishes his state
was like the chair—

The chair really rocks. Its rocking,
inevitable and permanent,
from the moment it tapped the floor.

But he can’t sit in the chair. The man’s body
since he first laid eyes on himself
seemed headed in one direction only, down.

Nina, he names her, and it gives the man the cough
he gets when he gazes at sky-patches
in the amateurish landscapes he paints—

He realizes these coughs are missives to himself
from that confusing air beyond the forest
and that the missives, his art,

amount to the void in the art and beyond the forest.
That in the future, he would not experience anything,
he would be experience.

CENTAUR MUSIC
for Elizabeth Metzger

All their words
have been spoken before
by human mouths.

They have to put music to the words
to make them mean anything
other than what someone has already felt.

If you said I’ve got the world on a string,
they would dance against our fences,
grating themselves bald as cheese.

Their lives are full of admissions
you’d rather not make.

Each Centaur’s music is different according
to where they are joined.

You are the only one for me,
sings my Centaur,
horse up to the lips,
singing almost all-horse music.

Even her lady nose is shaped
like a horse cantering,
or an alien ship whining exhaust,

and I am a single gold ring,
snug round the azure planet of her words—
which in her space ship, she is fleeing from.

 

Max Ritvo’s debut collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, is being published by Milkweed Editions in November 2016. Louise Glück refers to it as “one of the most original and ambitious first books in [her] experience.”

 

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MAX RITVO (1990-2016) wrote FOUR INCARNATIONS in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer; it was published in September 2016 ny Milkweed Editions.  He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

A 2012 Pushcart Prize winner, Nancy Mitchell is the author of The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her recent poems appear, or will soon appear, in Poetry Daily, Agni, Washington Square Review, Green Mountains Review, Tar River Poetry, Columbia College Literary Review, and Thrush, among others. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University and serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume.

Featured Selection Issue #63 October 2016
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