Between the Sheets: Max Ritvo’s first and final anthology celebrates the ephemeral

Between the Sheets: Max Ritvo’s first and final anthology celebrates the ephemeral

4 stars out of 5

“I am missing everything living/that won’t come with me/into this sunny afternoon,” wrote New York-based poet, Max Ritvo. Born in 1990, Ritvo was just 25 when he passed away of cancer-related causes this August.

At the age of 16, Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer, following a routine check-up after noticing some pain in his side. During the cyclical war of remission and relapse, Ritvo finished high school, attended Yale University for his undergraduate degree, and then Columbia University to earn his Master’s degree.

Perhaps the cost of brilliance can occasionally manifest itself in malignance—brilliance that has no other option but to fuel itself by devouring the host. I wonder, then, if this is what happened in the case of Ritvo.

A tangent: The sublime, according to my dim memory of Prof. Paul Salmon’s 19th Century Literature class, is a moment of absolute undistilled beauty. Usually associated with descriptions of nature in gothic literature, it can also mean the indescribable experience of seeing art which so moves you, you are irrevocably changed in some way.

I was farting around innocuously on my phone one day this summer while I was supposed to be working—tapping links and navigating pages in a stupor while 25 eleven-year-olds had their requisite snack break—when I came across Ritvo’s “Afternoon” from his anthology Four Reincarnations. He writes in the first stanza,

When I was about to die

my body lit up

like when I leave my house

without my wallet.  

I remember looking up from my phone because I was certain that the world had stopped turning for a moment, that I was somehow frozen in the amber of this moment. This first poem I read of Ritvo’s so moved me. It isn’t a poem about death and dying, or the sadness of cancer. It is a poem which simply grapples with knowing that you are going to miss things—that the infinite tumult of life will be cut consciously short.

His poetry interrupts itself, locating in the past continuous before switching suddenly, spinning out wildly across time. Ritvo’s style favours metaphor and simile; every aspect of his life bears the potential to be something else. It is an ambitious undertaking. By playing with the limits of connotation, Ritvo opens his poetry up for extreme expansion. He plays with such large concepts and makes such leaps within language that sometimes the intent of the poem (a complicated idea in itself) is lost to the reader. Sometimes there is no catharsis to be found for the reader, which again, could be a deliberate poetic choice. But I do think that anyone should be able to pick up any poem and glean something from reading it. I can’t fault him for the occasional inaccessibility of his poetry, because it isn’t inaccessible for the sake of inaccessibility. His work remains staggeringly intelligent and each turn is finely crafted and self-aware.

Perhaps, to grapple with such an inconceivable topic as death and terminal illness, you need to escape conventional, logical language and poetic process because dying at 25 is profoundly illogical. I think it is also important to note that Ritvo will never get to release another work. He’ll never get to tune his craft. This collection of poetry must stand alone, and as such, must be considered for what it implies. Instead of hinting at great potential which would be explored over a full lifetime, we are given only the faintest ghost. Even so, it shines like any “sunny afternoon.”

Photo by Mariah Bridgeman.