by Kasey McKee
There is always a unique challenge in evaluating a debut literary work that has been published posthumously. It is difficult not to read the author’s work as a last testament, with any subsequent review serving as a sort of eulogy. This is doubly true if the author has died at an early age.
Such are the circumstances of the book Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo, a collection of poems published in 2016 shortly after the author’s death from Ewing’s Sarcoma at the age of twenty-five. Drawing heavily from his decade-long experience as a cancer patient, what emerges is more than simply a chronicle of suffering in verse, as Ritvo creates a fluid landscape of phantasmagoria that is by turns nightmarish and tender.
As the book’s title suggests, the thirty-seven poems are divided into four sections, with the archetypal imagery of rebirth and metamorphosis (flowers, cocoons) woven throughout the work. The dust jacket is adorned with an illustration of an Ourobouros-like Koi fish with a tail that loops back toward its head, depicting a stanza from his poem “The Hanging Garden”. Ritvo plays with this theme of rebirth in unexpected ways, such as in “Poem To My Litter”. As he reflects that he won’t the opportunity to have children himself, he begins to see the lab mice into which his tumors have been transplanted as a sort of surrogate offspring:
I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,
but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
They don’t know they’re named, of course.
The overall style is fairly minimalist, punctuated by odd word choices and a compulsive resistance to the cliché. Several of the poems are quite difficult, and not necessarily because of the subject matter: the language used in many of the pieces can be oblique and defies an easy analysis. That being said, some of Ritvo’s most rewarding poems are the more mystic pieces that invite re-reading, such as the “Randal” poems in the second section. This decidedly impressionistic approach–leaving enough space between the images–allows the reader’s imagination to complete the picture.
Taken as a whole, Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations is filled with a robust sensuousness and vitality that admirably avoids the maudlin or merely sentimental. Moreover, after finishing the lengthy acknowledgments section at the end of the book, the reader is left with no doubt that the author, though terminally ill, was absolutely determined to see this opus through to its completion; and in an age such as ours, where the label “inspirational” is cynically applied to mediocre genre fiction, Ritvo’s demonstration of the value of literature is indeed something inspiring. That in itself is a great gift to the living.
Published by Milkwood Editions (October 2016)
Purchased for $22.00 at Subtext Books in St Paul, MN