An Unfinishable Life: On Putting Together Max Ritvo’s Last Collection
The "Soul-Saving" Project of Finishing The Final Voicemails
Max and I were family of the soul kind. The night after our first workshop together at Columbia, we shared a taxi home. He had overwhelmed me a little with his unabashed vocabulary, performative presence, and uncanny perceptiveness—he noticed the extra arch of my feet in my boots under the table. In the taxi, I remember some talk about Dickinson’s gnome, why people were better to read than books, and a recitation from Wallace Stevens’ The Blue Guitar. That midnight cab ride was approximately 15 minutes and soon became our post-workshop routine. Max often took out his turquoise laptop to read me (and the driver) a new poem, edit an old poem, or play an inspiring song. That was also the first night Max told me, as we pushed out of the revolving door of Dodge Hall, that I had a daemon—he knew it. This was Max’s name for the soul, and while I spent our entire friendship in awe of how totally opposite Max’s daemon was from mine, he emphasized to every person we met together that we shared the same one.
Till the day Max stopped writing in Los Angeles—the day before he died—Max and I were intrinsic to each other’s poetic development, though we had different roles in each other’s poems. Max taught me to honor the idea, he taught me to read with the emotional flux of a person thinking up the poem for the first time. I taught Max about form and lineation, reining in a flourish or deferring to a leap instead of an argument. My poems were influenced by mysticism and a love of language; Max drew on western and nonwestern philosophy, psychoanalysis, meditation. In the three years Max and I spent working together on our poems, I’d make sure his poem’s shoes were on the right feet before they walked into temple and he’d force my poems to loosen up by adding a glittery purple tail that somehow also lent them more logic.
We complemented each other’s habits of mind, gave each other prompts that generated spirits as much as poems, spent hours in front of one painting at MoMA, swapped clothes, shared a ritualistic oyster that we joked created a new taste bud. We knew when to be hands-off, when to provide feedback, and when to grab the other’s computer and cut or riff. We had the privilege of never becoming each other, of never competing, the privilege of the other’s eyes on our poems bringing them into a third dimension, pulling the person out of the page.
In the early days at Columbia, Max would weave elaborate defenses in response to my suggestions, rich explanations of his intentions. He was already a brilliant listener, generous and candid, but often stubborn. Max was afraid his book would not be published in his lifetime. As soon as Milkweed accepted Four Reincarnations, something unlocked. He transformed into a vicious revisionist, cutting and moving parts of poems, excising strong poems simply because their function felt redundant in the context of the manuscript. Everything became about the arc of a book, the context of a world he was suddenly trusted to build.
Circling back to the lessons of his first “master,” as he called Louise Glück, Max became cold and critical to his own work, changing rhinos to bulls in one of his most polished poems (which had recently appeared as Poem-a-Day) because the resonance of bulls in other poems throughout Four Reincarnations was more important. At first I balked at his late seemingly rash changes, but I quickly learned to trust this magic aftermath in Max, the gift of an improvisatory dance after a lifetime of choreography.
Sure enough, Milkweed, with their miraculous attention to Max, accelerated the publication process in order to deliver the galley of Four Reincarnations to him before he died. Tender and awed, Max looked like he was encountering life on another planet the moment I saw him confront Autumn Plinsky’s watercolor fish on the cover of Four Reincarnations. In the same breath, we were suddenly filled with a new mutual dread. If the work were over, we would have to confront the pills, the trials, the timelines, the scans, the oxygen, the pain. Without poetry there would be pity. Max didn’t have the energy anymore to be the most alive one in the room as he always was, distracting us from our own problems and his through his empathy and hilarity. Both of us knew we had to write in order to keep speaking to each other.
As Max quieted, thinned, and withdrew in pain in his chair, there was always the reminder that he was absolutely awake, alert, present when we worked on his poems, even if it was mostly in silence. When it became hard to chat with Max for 15 minutes, it remained easy to be honest with him about his poems. It was the most humane common denominator we could keep. We could be profane and spiritual, in medias res always, demanding and assuring.
It made sense, then, that Max later imagined I could see to posthumous creative decisions on his behalf. On several afternoons he had mentioned the possibility of a future chapbook, but once Four Reincarnations was slated to be published, and the closer he knew he was to dying, the more sure he was that what he wanted was something he couldn’t possibly complete. He was even the performer of his own dependence—he turned his needs into gifts with his wit and his willingness to look anything in the eye. He knew I was trying to have a child, and as he leaned on me for more practical tasks such as curating submission packets, writing cover notes, or mailing copies to Louise, he’d wink at me. Pretend I’m your baby, he said.
“When it became hard to chat with Max for 15 minutes, it remained easy to be honest with him about his poems. It was the most humane common denominator we could keep.”
I wrote Max many, many poems throughout our friendship. We often laughed about him writing poems for everyone he loved in his life except me. But in June, two months before he died, I woke to one of my standard middle of the night first drafts by Max. I wasn’t surprised that the document was called Elizabeth, but I was shocked when the poem was, too! This was a poem of us, responding to our experiences together, our process of collaboration, our way of living in time (something we discussed a lot); it even refracted lines from a poem I’d written for him in my first book. This wasn’t about being alluded to—this was about being accompanied. Max wasn’t writing for me, he said, he was writing with me, and I think one of the most discernible differences in the poems written after Four Reincarnations is the way they invite the company and completion of the reader.
I wanted to be brutal to prove my objectivity, but I told him candidly that I thought the poem was pretty much finished. I was unusually inarticulate about the feeling the poem conjured. “Just a kind of love we had to invent from scratch, Elizabeth, I am very happy the poem hit.” My instinct was to continue proving myself unbiased—I insisted he change the title. It was a Tuesday. He called it that.
At first I found the change from my name to a random day of the week funny, a way of saying don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you. But he was a step ahead. The poem is all about time. Like a clock-alternative, a pair of scissors become an arrow become a hand with a tremor. A gesture of uncertainty becomes a directive of empathy not between people but between moments, and the arbitrariness of the moment was exactly Max’s point. It was this one. It was any. It was Tuesday.
About a month later, Max had grown much sicker and more dependent on pain medication. He was down after a series of incoherent attempts at writing, and he declared he was sick of working on his poems wanted to look at a new poem of mine. Max gave me characteristically stunning notes on the poem I wrote from his challenge, but more stunning was that a few hours later I received a glowing text box with the entirety of a new poem by Max, the last poem he wrote to make it into The Final Voicemails, “Quiet Romance.” I wasn’t surprised by the casualness of the arrival so much as its shape and concision. Usually a draft came in a longer dense and ragged prosaic rock we chiseled away at together over weeks or months, but this one was not only done, it was shaped without me—mystical, leapy, and lucid at once.
Max wrote this poem on July 10th, about a month before he died. He was in a new level of distress—withdrawn, on oxygen, sleeping more frequently and fitfully in his zero gravity chair to prevent bedsores and pressure. Sure the poem takes on the same experience of dying as many of his earlier poems do, but there’s a new bluntness as the speaker finds a post-sexual companionship with solitude itself, a solitude that can no longer be enjoyed by a body. He described his view of it over text later that evening:
There’s a horse in my poem And a god . . . we both can drag where the other is genius that’s what makes us food for each other . . . I feel it’s a new style for me a poetry really of more calm need in myself also a mid day poem around time I wrote Afternoon…it’s a very remote and lonely poem but I think it’s a really good one I needed a nap but needed to write this more I guess you inspired me . . .
In rereading this exchange, I wondered if he had originally used the word God instead of dad, world, death? There is no word “God” here, but of course he’s right that there’s a god in it. The voice speaks out to the universe with a series of instructions, warding off anyone’s attempt to dress him or formalize his death. I hear the poem in a stage whisper, somewhere between a boy struggling to breathe and a god performing humanity:
When I die, make sure
dad doesn’t screw a hat on me
to keep the brains in.
And let nobody put a shirt on me.
Let death put her cool head
on my stomach for a listen.
I want every hole naked:
the pupils, nostrils, the two
below my gut. I want to listen back.
Many of the later poems in The Final Voicemails have this immediacy and rawness—they feel at once indelible and unfinished, perhaps hinting at the way Max radically revised even his most finished poems for the sake of the whole book, a process he couldn’t complete with The Final Voicemails. The longer I sit with the manuscript Louise put together, the more meaningful The Final Voicemails seems as the title for the collection—the way a voicemail is a message constrained by a recorded invitation and machine beep that blurs pressured spontaneity with inevitable concision.
“In a sense, he was writing as a dead poet—fastening himself between the premature and the belated.”
The poems in The Final Voicemails expose the machinery of the creative mind at work. They glitter with this intense and darker drive to enter the posthumous realm. Max’s project was clear: to imagine a world without him. As he writes in the title poem, “If no one is there to correct your imagination how is it not the world?” Imagining a collection that could not be organized and polished by his own mind is what generated The Final Voicemails, and I believe this offers it some of its wildest brilliance. In part, I think The Final Voicemails allowed Four Reincarnations to be his first book without the burden of being his last book, but Max also knew that he was writing toward something impossible and totally original. In a sense, he was writing as a dead poet—fastening himself between the premature and the belated. If a poem gave him a chance to escape while becoming increasingly present, he knew The Final Voicemails would be at once after-the-fact and unfinishable.
Unlike most poets who have the benefit of time to characterize their evolution—whether they expand or turn against their earlier work or respond to new life experiences—Max transformed as a result of being given hardly any time at all. The Final Voicemails is not that different from Four Reincarnations in subject or time period, though the poems are more apocalyptic and more plain. One poem was inspired by watching Nosferatu, an early horror movie. Another, “My Bathtub Pal,” is a revised email. The tone is blunter and more selfless: “Above me are stars/ but no constellations. / They won’t join tonight—/ even with their own kind.” The power is of a voice about to be extinguished, saved forever. Rather than virtuosically leap between the tragic and the comic, the new poems reveal a confidence Max gained that his thoughts themselves, even his small talk, were poetry.
At first, after Max died, I was devastated, muted despite his leaving me with the soul-saving project of working on this book with Louise, bestowing me his creative scepter and his trust. Rather than comfort or distract me from my grief, the fate of the poems and my responsibility for them seemed to amplify my despair. Despite our interdependence as poets, all of a sudden I doubted how well I could know what Max would have wanted. Louise instantly stepped in as editor—Max’s dream—and assured me that this question was moot. It would be impossible to know how Max would have put together, revised, or otherwise finished his subsequent collection. He did leave us some specific instructions for the book he imagined: the thinness, the cover color, a simple serious title, tiers of poems he wanted to be included.
One of the first shocks given, how prolific Max was even in the short window after Four Reincarnations was completed, was that there weren’t enough new poems for a full-length collection—the awful reality that he would never write another new poem set in. Initially I was hesitant about Louise’s idea to include many poems from Mammals, his college thesis. Reading the manuscript, however, as Louise arranged it over a year of back and forth piles of poems to consider and reconsider, astonished me. Her inclusion of the early work helped me understand the very thing that makes the whole collection so ravishing. Mammals anticipates a career and creates a literary past, while the voices of the late poems speak to a future they will never meet.
With one foot in the past and one foot in the future, The Final Voicemails has a presence and urgency that characterized Max’s psychological experience. It reminds me of Keats’ famous late fragment This Living Hand, which seems to reach out from the grave to revitalize the reader, just as the reader brings the poet’s voice back to life. The Final Voicemails is impeccably desperate—or we are. The poems call out, interrupt themselves, surprise us, reach out tenderly as we listen again and again for what Max made and for what he might have changed, even though we can’t call back. They bridge the gap between the dead and the living, between eavesdropping on an alien intelligence and mortal telepathy. Mortality, Max reveals, is characterized by unfinishedness, what we cannot finish. What makes us mortal somehow stunningly makes us endless, eternal.
Like a Dickinson or a Sappho whose fragments or drafts lure us in part because of what they couldn’t publish or what has been taken away by time, Max’s late poems feel most intimate and emotionally mature when we are most aware of death’s interruption and mystery. They have the ease and uncertainty of a voicemail, with the sacred brevity such a thing gains after the messenger has died. They expect and depend on the imaginary participation of a reader: “If you wish to see me/ you’ll have to sing,” he writes in “Your Next Date Alone