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Arts and Entertainment

Renowned Poet Max Ritvo Dies At 25

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"I am missing everything living / that won't come with me / into this sunny afternoon" - Max Ritvo

Most genius is impenetrable—greatness revealed through little-known scientific epiphanies and complicated equations, gated behind academic journals and unintelligible to all but a very select few. That was not the nature of Max Ritvo's gift. He was a poet of gorgeous openness, capable of the ultimate magic trick: translating humanness into words that actually meant something.

He was, as Lucie Brock-Broido wrote in The Boston Review, "a transmogrifier of suffering and holder of 'bird-shaped hope.'” Former U.S. poet laureate Louise Glück called Ritvo's debut collection one of the most original and ambitious first books she'd ever seen, writing that his "dazzling suppleness of mind manifests itself in electric transitions and unexpected juxtapositions, in wide-ranging reference and baroque allusion."

Max Ritvo was very young and very talented, increasingly renowned and recently married, with a teaching job at Columbia and a publication deal for his debut collection of poetry. For the last few years, he was also terminally ill.

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He was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, Aeons. In June, Ritvo's first poem was published in The New Yorker. In early December, Four Reincarnations, that acclaimed debut collection, will be published by Milkweed. On Tuesday, he died.

He described himself as "a writer of faith—faith in the senses."

"If halfway down the page my hand stops writing, all I need to do is perk my ears up or reach into a cabinet and pull out a trinket, and my senses will provide me the rest of the poem—the world will provide me the rest of the poem," he explained.

Ritvo was, as his mentor Glück wrote, "dealt a bleak but fertile subject."

At sixteen, he was diagnosed with a particularly rare and lethal form of cancer called Ewing's sarcoma. It was brutal. He left high school in Los Angeles for a time and set up shop at Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York, which he jokingly called his "alma mater" in an interview with WNYC. And then he got better. The cancer went away. He went to college.

"I thought it was totally over. I thought it was completely over. I thought I was fine," he told WNYC.

He fell in love with poetry and made new friends and lived like any Yale student. Darkness came knocking again during his senior year, when a routine scan revealed that the cancer had returned.

"[I]t was really a blizzard at that point," he recalled.

"They signed me into a chemo again without me really knowing what was going on and, you know, I held out hope that I would just get through college. And I lost all my hair, and I lost some of my friends, and I gained some much closer intimacies with some other friends than I've really ever had with any other human beings, ever, other than maybe my wife?"

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But he graduated school and started a master's program and then got his MFA and that teaching job at Columbia. You should listen to his WNYC interview from last fall with Mary Harris for "Only Human," taped just after he got married. At the time, his prognosis was "not good." You can hear how unexpectedly funny he is (he was in an experimental comedy troupe), how effortlessly precise, and also the boundless and elegant way in which his brain seems to operate. As a poet who is also the son of a psychoanalyst, married to a neuroscientist, Ritvo was exquisitely versed in the ways of the mind, and its unlikely relationship with our sticky, fragile human bodies, and our even more fragile, lacy mortality. And, of course, the total weirdness of it all.

He and his wife Victoria met at philosophy camp as teenagers. They banned the words "inspiring" and "courageous" from their wedding. He was not a fan of the way people talked about cancer survivors like they were "these precious symbols of suffering."

"I was very concerned about the wedding sort of becoming less about Victoria and I’s love than about a consecration of beauty in the face of death and of, you know, the radicalness of love in the face of..." he told Harris.

"I didn't want to be in the face of death—and Victoria doesn't really like thinking like that. She's a very practical, rational person. And she just thinks I’m by far the best choice. I’m the superior mate of all the people she's encountered, and she wants my babies."

Ritvo returned for another "Only Human" interview with Harris last month, almost a year later. He was frailer, coughing and in pain. He was also completely set on convincing Harris that death and dying are "actually hilarious."

"It’s like death is like a prank that your body plays on life. You know?" He laughed and continued:

Uh, it’s, it’s really funny. Um, you know, first of all the physical comedy of it. You go floppier than you've ever been and then you get rigor mortis and you become this stiff little capsule. Then your family puts you in a box but there’s no T.V. or snacks like you’re Buzz Lightyear being packaged up and then they put you in a, in a hole in the ground or they cremate you and you turn into protein powder basically. It's really just the physical comedy is amazing. And then the emotional way death is a leveller and pulls the rug out from under all of the permanences you've made. You tell yourself I'm going to find love and even if you do that, which is miraculous and almost never happens, but even if you do that and you die it just goes away. Um and it’s sort of, it makes all of life very quixotic.

She asked him to describe the funniest moment, and so he did. It was an unimaginably awful one, a tale of realizing he had to vomit while having diarrhea and the sudden understanding that moving his butt to vomit into the toilet would also mean shitting all over the wall. He ended up spreading his legs to vomit between them while remaining on the toilet, and marveling at the fact that his "body's mechanics couldn't even permit all the sadness to go into the little technological holes that we make to get rid of [it]."

"It was really funny, Mary," he said, telling her that he was somehow laughing at it even as it happened. "How could I not?"

"This is the way Max’s mind works," Harris says later in the interview. "The joy isn’t separated out from the everyday horrors, it’s all sitting there together simmering."

It all simmers in Ritvo's poems. "You want this work to stay put—in this world and the one after as well," Lucie Brock-Broido said of his poetry. "He can write the dreadful beautiful. He can make the unbeautiful humane. You want his look on life to go on, ceaselessly."

I didn't know Max Ritvo, at least not really. I knew of him. He was a few grades below me in high school. I knew that he had cancer and went away, and that he came back to L.A. and then went to Yale, and that was he brilliant and that many, many people loved him ferociously. I cried at my kitchen counter when I read his poem in The New Yorker this summer, like probably everyone else who read it did, at kitchen counters inside apartments and houses in cities and countries all over.

"Everybody dies with loose ends. You can be ninety, you can be twenty-five. These are my particular loose ends. And it’s been very very comforting not to really try to do anything other than do today. I want to do this interview with you today," Ritvo told Kaveh Akbar in an interview earlier this year.

"What happens to me is just the next step. It’s been immensely liberating to realize so much of joy is made worse by trying to make joy stay. And so much of suffering is made worse by trying to make suffering go away. When you’re just comfortable allowing whatever sensations are there to be there, allowing the paths whatever their paths, that is healing."

The Ritvo family will be holding private funeral services. In lieu of flowers, they ask that you make a donation to your favorite charity. You can pre-order Four Reincarnations here.