Max Ritvo. The Final Voicemails. Milkweed Editions, 2018. $22.00.
I’ve known so many people with voicemails they won’t delete from their inboxes—messages from loved ones who have passed, tinny when replayed over their phone’s speaker. There’s something about a final voicemail that is both intensely intimate and oppressively distant. It’s something more than silence; it’s a voice that has said all that it ever will. In this way, Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails is an aptly titled posthumous collection.
No discussion about Ritvo and his work can avoid mention of the tragedy of his life, of course. A gifted young poet with immense potential, diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of sixteen, passes away at twenty-five, a mere month before the release of his first book. In situations where an artist is aware that they don’t have much time left, it’s tempting to base any discussion of their work heavily on their circumstances, but in Ritvo’s case it’s necessary. The Final Voicemails or at least its first section, which is comprised of Ritvo’s most recent work, is about what death does to the body and what it feels like to know you are not long for this world. What makes this book so unique is that Ritvo’s voice is one of youth. His writing is vibrant, irreverent, and often funny. His words are moving and tragic, but they’re also the words of a clever twenty-something tasked with writing about something as big and important as an approaching death—something usually reserved for older and “wiser” poets.
Louise Glück tells us in this book’s introduction that these poems are untouched and unedited by anyone besides Ritvo (except for a single minor cut by Elizabeth Metzger). What these poems might lack in absolute perfect polish, they make up for in directness and immediacy. These are a raw voice, giving a hint at what the conversation would be like if we had picked up the phone. The second half of the book is devoted to Mammals, Ritvo’s undergraduate thesis from Yale. Mammals behaves like a collection of bonus tracks on an album. These poems give the reader a sense of Ritvo’s past and avoid the emotional weight of his more recent poems. Glück goes so far as to include earlier versions of Mammals poems that made it into Ritvo’s first full-length book, Four Reincarnations, to serve as evidence of his evolution as a writer.
In the titular first section, Ritvo stays focused on the physical reality of a life with a terminal illness, which very often centers on the deterioration of his body. He speaks of death often, but his idea of death is simply one of finality. No more existence. No more pain. It’s important that Ritvo doesn’t seek to construct some sense of meaning as one might be tempted to do—to have some epiphany or find some truth that would make sense of a tragic life. Instead, Ritvo accepts what life has given him and documents the experience. In “Delphi,” the process of dying is not one of enlightenment. It is simply a process:
I have been reading not philosophy but medicine,
and my baldness is not wisdom,
and the pond is not thought, but my thought,
which is always on death…
There is nothing about this failure of the physical that brings wisdom. When a mind fixates on death, there’s no philosophical truth to divine or some orderly knot that can be tied around this whole messy process. The baldness is not a marker of age or experience, but rather evidence of the harsh process of chemotherapy. This lack of meaning and order returns in “Dinner in Los Angeles, Raining in July”:
Above me are stars
but no constellations.
They won’t join tonight—
even with their own kind.
Even constellations—humanity’s attempt to make order of the stars—don’t hold up. Ritvo’s poems reject these hopeful ideas of some greater order. Ritvo frequently addresses physical matters directly, as we see in the first two stanzas of “Quiet Romance”:
I am too weak for sexual urges anymore
but I yearn to be naked
all the time.
I want to urinate without
having to pull off
The small actions we don’t notice in our daily lives have the potential to become almost insurmountable obstacles. Ritvo’s observations reframe simple bodily functions in a way that transform them into unfamiliar experiences. Instead of the far-flung, historical, and mythical places we see in the 2013 Mammals (Troy, Mont Blanc, Uruk, Eden, Sheol), in his 2016 poems we see small moments and spaces, like a bathtub, a kitchen, and a bed. Yet they are no less important for their smallness.
What stands out when reading The Final Voicemails is Ritvo’s humor and, in light of the tragedy of his life, the acceptance visible on the page: “as my tumors grow / my self-loathing seems to shrink,” he writes in one poem. Ritvo was never one to shy from humor and wit, and this collection is no exception. His poems, full of clever turns of phrase and surreal images, subvert expectations. There are skulls full of olive oil, oceans being filled with buckets, and a man with almost no eyebrows named “the Soul Eater.” Ritvo’s devotion to poetry never falters. I’ve focused more on the darker parts of The Final Voicemails, but there is still laughter, wonder, and joyful musicality to be found throughout. “If you wish to see me / you’ll have to sing,” Ritvo writes in “Your Next Date Alone.”
The stage is empty.
How do you fill it?
The words will be the play,
and the tune will be the body.