Featured photo credit: Ashley Woo.
One frequent and endlessly forgivable side effect of serious illness is an inclination to turn inward and focus on your own suffering. I’m sure in many cases that it’s even medically helpful to transform yourself into another monitoring device, paying constant attention to your symptoms, scrutinizing their ever-so-slight permutations, in the hopes of front-running any uninvited byproducts of this particular course of Doxil or Oncovin. But the risk you run—or rather, the risk you’re forced to run—is that your mind might slowly become bound inside the two bed-rails, day-by-day your awareness sliding so completely into the self that there’s (understandably) little-to-no room left for paying meaningful attention to the distress of those at your bedside, or for a wider perspective at large.
It seems to me, that among Max Ritvo’s many acts of heroism in writing the material that became The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions, 2018), was his incredible ability to actively check this inclination. In this collection, raw meditations on death are not documentation of suffering that serve only to extract a sort of charitable sympathy from the reader. Ritvo was able to get outside of himself, somehow, and to keep an eye on how all of this would be narrativized.
And it’s not even the pain foremost, it is the story of me in pain that is paining me.
I am possessed with self-pity, and it is expressing itself out of my mouth.
[My Bathtub Pal]
And once more:
In extreme pain we leave our bodies and look down to commit the pain to memory like studious angels.
Relatedly, I’d say that while there are moments of profundity in The Final Voicemails—so many awe-worthy, arresting lines with phrases that feel as though they were cut with diamond saws—Ritvo always manages to step around any sort of impending-death convention or trope you might expect to find from a lesser talent. I’m sure that some adjunct friends, or distant family, or miscellaneous internet denizens who’d followed the sound-bites of Max’s story, etc., will order this collection and try to mine it for inspiring nuggets the way you might pick up Ray Dalio’s Principles or, I don’t know, Eat Pray Love, in the hopes of trimming a few lines for pasting to your whiteboard at work or for a self-explanatory meme.
Max Ritvo pulls away from this current, this market for bite-sized, summatory sentimentality. One of my very favorite iterances comes in the opening poem:
All this time, I thought my shedding would expose a core, I thought I would at least know myself…
[The Final Voicemails]
Oh, I love these lines. They remind me of Emerson’s account of himself grieving the death of his son and just waiting for an insight, his hard-wrought reward, some knowledge buried in all the suffering. Emerson wrote of the experience, “the only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”
Likewise, here’s Ritvo:
…my baldness is not wisdom
Ritvo manages not only to escape himself, but he holds a mirror to the rest of us with lines like that. What is it we’re hoping for out of someone else’s grave illness? Why do we lean so close and wait for a profound insight? Does that expectation put them (the sufferers) on the spot to sum up life in a brief morsel or two? I think the real question I’ve been forced to confront while locking horns with this collection: does this mining for meaning prevent us from living fully in the present, from savoring simple moments with our loved ones?
Ultimately, this question is not about grave illness, either. We’re all terminal, one way or another. Ritvo:
But we suffered and there is no pill to treat time.
[Nobody Asked Anything]
I.e., no one can be saved from time’s metastasis. Hopefully this fact isn’t staring you in the face at this exact second, but Ritvo’s work suggests to me that perhaps we ought to spend less time on anxiously examining ourselves, working up the dread that comes with such probing—what does it all mean?—and spend time on whatever it is that makes our lives feel vibrant today.
I find this thought to be tied into another powerful thread that runs through Ritvo’s last poems: there are references to (what I’ll call) a culture of high achievement, where we’re always jumping from one goal to another, and how it worms its way into our brains.
We, in the West, eat until we want to eat something else, or want to stop eating altogether.
I.e., we’re devouring one thing and then as soon as we’ve finished, we’re onto the next thing. And that cycle of goal-setting continues right up until you’re at the end of your life. It’s gritty, it’s stated beautifully, and it’s true. Again, Ritvo:
You’re almost at the finish line. But first, you have to pick a finish line.
[The Soundscape of Life is Charred by Tiny Bonfires]
There seems to me to be an insistence here about escaping the default, competitive settings of your brain, stepping outside the finish-line-to-finish-line mentality and doing something for its own sake. Playing cards with your grandmother. Cooking a meal from scratch with your partner. Going for a bike ride in a part of town you usually don’t see. I’ve belabored the point enough, but that’s the sort thinking these poems have inspired in me.
Beyond that, I’d like to call attention to the gorgeous and abiding sense in the collection of being a guest in this life. There’s a sense that, as a guest, you’re obliged to make a humble truce with the fates. Like entering someone else’s house, you’re bound to play by their rules or pay homage to their customs.
Some people were born to be guests. Like me. Next time, I told her, you pick the spot.
[My New Friend]
It’s wonderful, and sad. Once more:
I can hear already a roaring in the distance, half salt, half horse,
I like this, I’m scared, but so’s the sound. We’ll both be guests.
So you’re a guest for a while, and then one day you’re no longer welcome. You’ve got to go. But that’s not necessarily all tragic. There’s a nitrogen cycle angle at work in the poems, a brutally hopeful reminder the death begets life in some ways.
And the chef is God, whose faithful want only the destruction of His prior miracles to make way for new ones.
It sounds a bit like Conservation of Mass, or like something beautifully Malthusian. Ritvo stares at his place in all of this biochemical cyclicality and contemplates what’s next after passing, what he’ll become, what he’ll be. Perhaps my absolute favorite section:
When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.
Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too. In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs, and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs, and if I am ever a thought of my widow I’ll love being that.
[My New Friend]
I think, as a work in and of itself, the knock against this collection might be that it doesn’t feel entirely whole or fully fleshed out. It doesn’t seem endlessly sanded-down, or scrubbed, or otherwise brought to a Pinesol-slick sheen that gives you the impression of wood floors waxed ahead of a realtor’s open house. And, of course, there’s an obvious explanation—there wasn’t enough time for its author.
As a result, I do believe that the collection’s relative bareness, its sort of skeletal authenticity is fitting. Ultimately, it might make The Final Voicemails a more effective piece of art; after all, you’re only allotted so much time to leave a voicemail before you’re cut off.
Max Ritvo didn’t have the good fortune to live as long as, say, William Maxwell. Ritvo wasn’t afforded the opportunity to sit down in his later years and peck away on his typewriter, editing up something like “Nearing 90,” Maxwell’s wonderful essay, where the author reflected on his long life winding to a close, lamenting chiefly about the books he wouldn’t be able to re-read during death. Why would we hold The Final Voicemails to the same standard of pristine wholeness as So Long, See You Tomorrow, a well-scrubbed little novel that Maxwell wrote as a senior citizen? Well, we shouldn’t. But why would we even want Ritvo’s last work to be so whole? The hole itself is a huge part of this collection, a gravitational center around which the poems orbit.
Incidentally, the central device of So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unfinished house, and that’s an image that comes to me when I think about the core of The Final Voicemails. There are no walls in this house, just beams, floors, and studs. You can go room to room here without the need to open doors. You can look up and see the sky. The poems in The Final Voicemails exist as a similar sort of living blueprint of a corner of Ritvo’s mind or a set of joists, incomplete but graspable and solid.
It is generally a good deal to be a guest in this world, but the arrangement comes with a striking set of contractual terms – the most brutal of which are that you’ve got to leave one day and that the timing is not necessarily up to you. But, as Ritvo illuminated in The Final Voicemails, when you do leave, it’s not the end of your impact or your love or, maybe, your spirit. There are significant contrails left behind. There are dogs and chairs, and there are people who, in their memories, thoughts, and actions, continue to keep essential parts of you in existence.
I’m done. The last word here shouldn’t be mine:
But when you decide someone has something to say their silences speak to you too—