Max Ritvo, 1990-2016
Wink, Victoria Ritvo, 2016
Max Ritvo sadly passed away in August. Max was a gifted and inspirational poet. His debut collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, will be published on September 30th. We asked his family and friends to share some of their memories of Max. Our tribute opens with a previously unpublished poem that will appear in his final book of poetry.
What if my tumors don’t like me?
What if they come up for air?
Dolphins are made of fire,
so they spend forever in water
trying to put themselves out.
I am made of death,
so here I am in life
trying to put myself out.
What would my body look like?—
ripples along the skin,
like baby hands that want
to reach through a rainbow parachute.
On the other side of the parachute
is a big blue ball.
It’s too big for babies to hold,
but the game is
they get to blame the parachute.
The hands are hard
Small, slippery, I wonder
if they even know
that things of blood like us
use devices like these to love.
I knew Max was going to propose to me on our first anniversary—our first anniversary of dating, I should say, since he was one of my closest friends for nearly a decade before we dated. But he insisted that if and when he ever proposed, it would be a surprise. To convince me of this, he’d pretend to propose in increasingly embarrassing locations when I’d least expect it. He first pretended to ask me in an alleyway, then he tried again on a New York City subway car, surrounded by irritated commuters. The day before our anniversary, he got down on one knee in the toilet paper aisle at CVS and took out an empty ring box from his coat pocket. The employees congratulated us and took pictures so that we could remember the moment.
I woke up early on the morning of our anniversary, and when I reached over to the bedside table for some water, I heard something clink against the glass. I felt around in the dark for what had made the noise. On my finger, there was Max’s mother’s old ring, the one she had given him to give me. I screamed and woke Max up.
He told me that I always expected him to find the best words for his thoughts, but this time he’d struggled. It had to be perfect, he said, and how could he find the perfect words to tell me how much he loved me? He said he realized he could only find those words in me, because all of his writing spoke with my heart through his mouth. His imagination could only be what it was because it played pretend in my imagination. So while he couldn’t adequately express all his love for me in words, my dreams would be a stage on which he could dance his love. He said that he trusted that our brains were so deeply connected, that if he asked me while I was asleep to dream the perfect proposal, then my dreams would create it for both of us:
I ask you, will you marry me? And I infect your sleep with my love. I stretch my own love into your dreams. You will wake to find a ring on your finger, as sudden and automatic and natural as dew on a blade of grass. It’s as natural as that—we should be married as obviously and necessarily as the seasons and sleep.
Two years later, on our first wedding anniversary, we exchanged poems. He died three weeks later. I had written him a poem about trying to make him permanent, and not being able to:
I made your hands myself out of metal—
poured the silver into a glove cast
and hammered in your veins.
You say it feels cold now
so I want to give you a ring to keep you warm.
Here—I soldered the cloth myself.
I burnt the joint of the circle a little extra
and now it smells like flesh, see?
And I soaked the ring in my sweat
on my hottest night
just for you to warm your cool fingers.
I met Max over three years ago. We met at a reading and then went out to dinner with a few other poets. He was in touch a few months later for some quick advice, and after that we were friends on Facebook, but we didn’t talk for two years. When we started talking again, in January of 2015, we didn’t stop. He made the past 20 months, some of the best months of my life. I want to describe our friendship, but it’s easier to show you. Five months ago, I wrote him this poem:
Trees, don’t do this to me.
I came out of my house unhappy,
and then the weeping willow’s branches
in the wind,
the bamboo stalks all moving
Cheer up, they said,
one tree flowering too early,
the daffodils already out.
Inside I thought only of the ants,
the bathroom that won’t hold heat.
I folded laundry, looked at the empty fridge.
Everywhere I looked an errand
to be addressed by the housewife
I watched videos about politics,
saw pictures of people beaten and bloodied.
I couldn’t cry because I was tending
my son, and I cried in front of him just
And then we had to get dinner.
Then the wind. That’s when the wind—
the world not coming to an end,
the blooms more predictable than ever,
the world taking its time, making it.
My friend is dying.
I spent the poem trying not to tell you,
but the trees filled me
with such guilt,
I enjoyed them so.
Here’s the conversation that followed over text messages, slightly edited, and without a few emojis.
Got a bit choked up
I love you
I love you. Aaron and I are at Trader Joe’s but haven’t left the car yet.
We just had a long conversation about how we’re mammals but dad’s not because he has a big beard and he’s a plant and Aaron will grow into a dad and plant too one day
Victoria is a plant bc her hair is long
I am extra mammal bc I’m bald
He laughed a lot when I said if you’re a mammal you’re a mammal for your whole life
Ok going in!!
Get some hummus
That poem is so fucking depressing
It’s so good
With Max, I enjoyed life more. Contradictions didn’t bother him. Sadness and happiness existed at the same time, all the time. Impossibilities weren’t treated as impossible. Humor was everywhere. Love was the ultimate. Conversations moved quickly between philosophers to reality tv to painters to movies to anxiety and back to jokes. We talked about what drives us to write—if we want to write the perfect poem or the best poem or a poem that’s unlike any other poem or a poem that’s the most insert-any-adjective. Or could a writer write a poem that makes the writer feel good? What would that look like—the act of writing creating a good feeling in the body? He understood how writing is wrapped up in the physicality of writing in a way I often forget. I try not to anymore. I miss him so much.
Much is said of what happens when you meet a soulmate in this life. Some say bells ring or you just know that a person who is instantaneously a stranger is instantaneously not a stranger. Much is said too about what happens when you meet someone who is deeply charismatic. Who has maybe seen it all and approaches you with a little twinkle in the eye. Because why not make a joke at the very stuff of this ridiculous predicament we are all in in living. A truly charismatic soulmate—that’s what Max Ritvo was to me and will always be.
Almost two years ago now Max had to have a very hard medical procedure and I remember texting him from the hospital, or as he was on the way there, and I fell asleep after writing him and woke up at 6 am and wrote him a poem. I don’t cry often, but I remember crying while I was writing the poem in that almost morning blue-grey light. The poem was about being a warrior on a grand scale, like a life warrior. That’s how I portrayed Max in the poem and that’s the way I saw him in real life. Max moved me to tears (often), but he also moved me to true reverence, with the grace in which he handled his life and his physical struggles, with the ways in which he articulated his psychic troubles, with the ways in which he was able to love people and to love to make things and language with a kind of sweetness that only comes after you realize that’s all we have: to make. Max made us feel and laugh and dance and jump. He was wild and free and loyal, coming to my aid a million times to cheer me on. Max made us feel that you were loved and the most special person on earth—that you were alive. Max made us feel.
Part of me finds this very hard to write because I feel Max hasn’t left this world yet. He’s still here floating above us (not very far away) making sure his family and friends are safe and okay. That’s the kind of friend he was, the kind of human he was. I know, he would tell us now, don’t cry, it’s going to be really really good, just wait.
I have so many memories of Max in my head since his passing. Some are sad and most are examples of his divine generosity. I’m laughing in most of them. But the one I will hold as a static important memory of him happened maybe three years ago now, during the fall he was my student in a poetry workshop. We met before we went to Lucie Brock-Broido’s book party for her new book, Stay, Illusion, to go over some of his poems for my class, and I was dressed in a catsuit for the party, complete with a tail and headpiece and maybe a leopard print bowtie. As soon as we greeted each other, he asked to wear my cat ears. To which of course I quickly obliged. We had met at Think Coffee a couple of doors down from the Bowery Poetry Club where the party was about to commence, and we shared one of their amazing grilled cheese sandwiches and went over a ten-part poem line by line for a little while. Every time I gave a suggestion, Max would ask me a question, as if he were compelled to roll over all of the possibilities of the poem into the infinite spectrum. In that moment, we were two rabbis bent over the book in the light of the cold-dark early winter evening. Friends, and utterly soulmates, splitting a sandwich and a cat suit. That’s how I want to remember him.
Max was a serious serious poet during his life and the poems that he’s left us are going to echo through the ages. I will miss you forever, my friend.
Since we met in Dorothea Lasky’s workshop at Columbia, I have been lucky to call Max my dæmon, my soul-twin, and my first reader. At any hour and in any place, Max and I would take out our freshest, most raw work—in midnight cab rides across the park, crouched on the street outside the New Museum, over sushi in crowded Columbia buildings, and this past year in Los Angeles, in Max’s room. Max would sit either at his desk or in his zero gravity chair. I’d sit either at his desk or at the foot of his bed, and we’d take out our laptops or our crumpled pieces of paper.
There was no one perfected methodology, no routine exactly that we established. Our friendship allowed for this, the intimacy of unfamiliarity, of no expectations and the highest expectations, the chance to say anything, to argue, to distract, to deflect, to defend, to cut entire stanzas, to break each other’s lines. We invited friends, family, our spouses, our parents, sometimes teachers, even strangers, to participate in our battle of logic and magic. Neither of us knew at the end which side we stood on, but I think it became clear by the time we were both on the floor with each other’s manuscripts, writing each other’s emails, or accidentally quoting each other’s lines in conversations, that we were loyally on the side of each other’s poems.
Rarely, but on occasion, this meant we had to stand at a distance from each other as poets—we had to point out our tricks, our habits, our faults. We helped each other strive for clarity that wouldn’t sacrifice mystery, for musicality that wouldn’t sacrifice the freedom to plain-speak, for entertainment, pleasure, and humor that wouldn’t undermine the expression of pain or fear. Max was writing about death and pain from a place of suffusion, of minute-to-minute experience. He wrote to and from death with joviality and seriousness. But what allowed our working friendship to work was Max’s unflinching insistence on living, being fully part of the living, until the day he died. Not only did this mean writing up until the very end, but it also meant celebrating the beauty and absurdity of mundane experiences and other people’s more minor dreads and gravities. For this, I am eternally grateful.
From the moment I met Max he explicitly let me share death with him as a fear and as a subject, no matter how taboo it felt to me at first, or how abstract and watery my relationship with death felt when he was describing the way it felt daily, in his bathtub or in his body. I am grateful to Max most for living and then for teaching me that death—and everything out of our control for that matter—is an experience it’s okay to dread, resent, detest, and still find art in. And by finding art, Max taught me early on, he did not mean staring, solitary, at a painting (he preferred a museum buddy…I’ll never forget the hour we spent before a Magritte at MoMA or the way he posed beside a sculpture at the New Museum) or even reading a book to oneself. Art for Max was being with others and letting others be with him. As he often expressed, he hoped his poems would be shareable brains, brains that strangers could use to think for a moment like Max thought. He didn’t want people to think his thoughts. He wanted people to find fresh access to their own thoughts.
As an exercise, I try to stop myself mid-thought and focus on an object in my vision, a sensation, or even a person in my presence. I try first to love the thing or being and then to transform it imaginatively into something I can’t see, something invisible or out of reach. To me, this is a way to believe in heaven, to believe that the living and the dead can share that heaven, that we are just standing on opposite sides of every metaphor, standing up for each other’s brains. I’m not sure whether I believe that consciousness continues, but I can offer no better afterlife now than Max’s own poems. Through all of Max’s trials, chemos, and sick days—there was a constancy to our work. Often a poem of Max’s would arrive in my inbox in the middle of the night, often several drafts. By morning (or noon if Max was waking up late), I’d send him notes on the poem and we’d make plans to “Comb” the poem together in the next day or so. We remained proud that our deep influence on each other, our often hands-on approach, never compromised each other’s originality.
This summer, a few weeks before Max died, I had the sudden realization that one day I would no longer get a new Max poem in my mailbox. No matter how sick he was, I expected them, but the idea that with his death, he could not write new work had not entirely occurred to me. He was in a lot of pain in July and I had stopped writing my own poems for a few months. It was not intentional, not a sacrifice of any kind, and didn’t even feel like a hiatus because Max was writing so prolifically and well that I was swept up in the momentum of his utterly present brain in addition to the worry over his future body.
One day I went to visit Max and he could see my sadness, something I regret and tried not to showcase. Even though he acknowledged and accepted all emotions, I didn’t see the point in requiring him to console me, which is what my sadness would elicit. He called me later that night, groggy from pain meds, and he said something about my seeming sad and needing to be strong. I know he didn’t mean I needed to mask my emotions or be stoic, so I struggled to understand how he could expect me to be strong and yet be myself, be intimate and true with him. I realized I hadn’t been holding up my end of the deal so I wrote him a poem.
The below poem sparked our last candid marathon of back and forth poems before Max died in August. Though many of my poems are for him, this final poem for him is valuable for me to share with you because it explains how in poetry we were able to remain our best living selves with each other until the end. The fact that in a poem I could be strong and sad, could send him my fears of losing him, and still expect him to treat the poem before me, to make the poem better, to be hard and honest and loving. In the poem, I admit the sick room is the same as the room of our creation and creative process. Max helped realize that our work was not a refuge from reality as I sometimes feared it was, but a part of reality that allowed the ugly parts to be, if not beautiful, at least important to the senses and to our making sense. It is through poetry that Max thus revived me many times, and I think it is through poetry only that we have the chance to forever revive and share Max, with ourselves and with others.
You want strong
and here are my shoulders
humid with fear of dirt.
The widest part at birth,
they shook out, and have kept their stillness.
When you tell me
you will look worse and worse
I see forever happening
like a sleepy woman inside you
remembering she’s awake.
Sorry about the garden—
the birdbath is still broken
but one-on-one time is slow
and lets speech blush beyond foresight.
My shoulders round all they want.
Still the end is always faster.
It fools me into reaching
for a straw or your book
or the window, whatever is
close enough to fill whatever capacity.
There is a magenta flower on the desk
becoming a brain. Well, not becoming
but discovering it has been.
I met Max Ritvo when he was my student in a playwriting class at Yale. He was twenty-one when he walked into my playwriting class–a poet with a background in comic improvisation. I thought—a poet, AND he’s funny? What could be better, what could be more rare? He was new to playwriting, and he embraced the genre with all the beautiful fervor of an accomplished poet with a deeply original mind. He was more intellectually and creatively passionate than I thought possible in the current zeitgeist. Here was a young man who had somehow acquired both deep learning and the wisdom of an eighty year-old sage. He made me laugh with admiration when he effortlessly coined phrases like “lyrical complicity” or “theatrical onanism”. I took him out for black bean soup to talk about plays and poetry, and he apologized for eating slowly. He explained that he’d had chemotherapy in high school, and his digestion was still iffy, though he was in remission. At the end of the semester, life changed.
Max started aggressive treatment for his cancer. Max and I wrote letters back and forth during this time, and at a point decided to correspond more in earnest. Over the course of that time I visited him, and got to know his incredible wife and mother and big family, and his astonishing friends. He collected friends and made them friends with each other. He bound people to each other and to art through the force of his imagination.
Sometimes I brought soup, or chocolate chip cookies—Max’s favorite. It always made me absurdly happy when he ate the food I brought him while he was losing weight. He came to all my plays. When I saw him afterwards, he always made me feel that I wrote my plays exactly for him. He came to my birthday parties and we played charades. He met my husband and my children. I gave him socks and songs. I gave a blessing at his wedding. If I was nervous before doing a book reading (I don’t relish speaking in public) Max would text me jokes to drive the nerves away. We ate pizza and took walks and talked about poetry and Mel Brooks. Max had an odd effect on me; even in the midst of his tremendous physical suffering, I would leave a visit with Max and feel full of joy. I think that is because Max dipped into a kind of communion with others that is rare, rare, rare.
Max often referred to me as his teacher when introducing me. And I would think: but what can I teach Max? Max had become my friend, my teacher. I would think: teach me to be your teacher. And so he did. He even comforted his loved ones through the loss of him. Everything Max did was wildly present, and radically generous. His radical generosity increased his sense of presence, his presence increased his radical generosity. In short—Max was one of the greats. And he makes the past tense is absurd. Max is one of the greats, and will always be.
An X-Ray of your soul shows
a general radiance
While the scan of your breath
shows only poetry
We are still waiting on the biopsy
of your imagination
But we suspect it cannot be contained.
Your body cannot contain you.
You’re way too wide for that.
And if there is a Jewish heaven,
it is here, on earth,
on thirteenth street:
you, shouting poetry
in a crowded room
and wearing a pink kimono.
Max was one of my closest friends and still owes me $600. If I ever felt like I couldn’t handle the world, or any particular aspect of it, I would call Max, and he would listen. And I would remember what the world actually was: him listening to me. A year and a half ago he woke up in the middle of the night and sent me several texts about how terrified he was that he might die without leaving a legacy as a poet. I wrote him this email the next day. He told me he was over it a couple hours later, before he read my email. But I like to think it would have helped:
I don’t know if you still feel like you did in your text last night, but I might as well let you know how important your life has already been to me. Even if you die now, you will not have fallen short. I don’t even really know what that would mean in concrete terms, but I think I understand the feeling. As far as you know, being born into this life is the only chance you get to matter, and you got the chance but you didn’t get to matter. It’s like you’re Tantalus, but instead of grapes it’s a meaningful existence. And instead of them being taken away repeatedly, they’re being taken away once, forever. And instead of there just being air between you and the grapes, there’s your life’s idle hand batting your own hand away every time you reach. Does that kind of capture how you feel?
Those grapes are bogus and you know it. Writing a masterpiece, for example, is a shitty plastic grape that’s only good for squeezing to create vacuum and then putting it on your nose and then releasing your fingers so it suctions onto your nose, and then somebody says “cool!” and tries to do it themselves. If there are any grapes that you can’t have because of the conditions of your life, then those are not your grapes, they were never your grapes (despite what people and your ego told you) and you don’t need them.
At any rate the thing I really wanted to say is you’ve already written a masterpiece, and it’s our friendship, and if you care about having an audience for your masterpiece outside of the two of us, then you’re a petty dingus with no reason to live.
I hope I haven’t told you this so many times that it’s lost its meaning, but you taught me love in a way that only you could have. I speak for myself, but I’m sure this is also true for Victoria and Andrew. And stuff like this rubs off on a lot of people you come into contact with and whom you never will but whom I, or Andrew, or Victoria will. And thanks to you there’s a chain reaction of love that will keep going forever, because it’s part of the endless stream of causes and conditions that moves the world. And it’s that same stream that you yourself, and your love came from.
I know you have to live most of your life right now in a Chekhov play with Bill Maher cameos, so it’s nearly impossible to actually feel the reality of what I’m saying. But I am not in that play right now, and I can tell you from the outside: your life has been important. Maybe your life is meaningless and fruitless to you, but it isn’t to me. So it looks like I’m the winner in this situation.
I love you.
A couple weeks before he passed, Max and his wife Victoria sent me a beautiful mug, one they picked together from Etsy, one I now drink from daily. Every morning, I drink my first cup of coffee from this mug and come blearily into the sudden Maxlessness of the world. I learned so much from Max and have been the beneficiary of so many of his gifts (his poems, his humor, his compassion, his wit, his love). I want to talk about each of those things. I want to talk about the gratitude I feel daily for each of those things. For a time a few weeks before he passed, he’d text me every six hours to tell me to take ten seconds, right then and there, to feel the joy of some recent good news I was having trouble accessing through my grief about his sickness. I want to tell everyone about that. About how we’d trade poems back and forth, mine about a man walking off a gangplank reciting Max’s poems, his about a particularly difficult shit that day. I want to talk about how many times I’ve read and reread through our entire text history since he’s been gone. How many times I’ve reread his magisterial first collection. I want to talk about how much I miss him every day. How grateful I am to have gotten to love him while he was here.
I met Max Ritvo when I imagine most did—when he was smiling, thrilled to be alive, feverishly celebrating being together. We were shaking hands at NYC’s 92Y after a reading I’d stumbled through. (I get very nervous in front of crowds.) Max, effusive as ever, was going on ad nauseam about how much he loved the poems, their delivery, about how frequently he’s bored by poetry performances, the monotonous “poet voice,” and how exceptional this one was. “To enjoy my poetry so much… this person must be disturbed,” I thought.
Not too long after that night, we got to put the shoe on the other foot: Max on stage, costumed in some extravagant robe, confident, filling the room with music, and I, some mad man, waiting in line, astonished at what I’d just witnessed, moved, inspired not just to be a better artist, but to be a better being. Max’s work has that power, that vision—less the “I’ve wasted my life” variety, and more the “You must change your life” brand.
The first time he met my fiancée, Devon Walker-Figueroa, Max suggested the three of us commemorate the event with a picture—the three of us in pyramid formation, Max, barely over a hundred pounds, if I had to guess, on the bottom, of course. This was part of Max’s genius—he was able to see his own fragility as the thing that simultaneously made him unique and made him exactly like everyone and everything else. He knew that in our transience was humility, in that humility was humor, and in that humor there was grace.
I was scrolling through Facebook the other day (as one does), flicking, flicking, flicking, and I stumbled on a little slice of comedic genius that just stopped me in my tracks. It was a cartoon drawing of a full body, Donald Trump skin-suit—head and all—hanging limp from a coat hook, scantily clad in a too-tight, American flag banana hammock. And who, in this alternate universe, had been wearing the getup, embarrassing so many of us these past few years? It was none other than master prankster Andy Kaufman, looking equal parts victorious and ornery, just about to exit, stage right, out of the scene. I blinked a few times, and then yelled into the empty room, “That’s so Max!” Sure, like Kaufman, Max had that unusual ability to delight others by making them uncomfortable. And, sure, like Kaufman, Max knew there was wisdom in wonder. But mostly what I was reacting to was that, like Kaufman—and like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix—Max was so uniquely alive that some of us may never believe he’s gone.
In July, I wrote Max this poem, after the last time I saw him:
If, friend, I wanted
to tell you something—
something true, and useless,
but required—I’d start
with what our friends tell us
everyday and say exactly
I’d tell you that like you
I’ve grown tired
but still plan to make
the water glass you left
on my bedside table
last me at least
three weeks longer
than I’ll need it to.
I’d tell you
we all wish our lives were a little more
like a post-apocalypse
TV series (right?),
where we have purpose,
the people around us
need us, and every episode
a new main character
I’m telling you all this now,
of course, in case
you yourself, friend,
which is a possibility
that seems at this hour
more probable than usual,
and because, believe it or not,
there was something
I meant to tell you,
the other night,
after spicy noodles,
but didn’t at the time
have the time to say:
Though it’s not factual,
it still feels correct,
that your hair will continue
to grow after you’ve died,
which is to say
that the part of you that’s dead
and always has been
dead, is the part of you
that wants most to go on
living, and will, if enough of us
believe it. Enough of us believe it.
I first met Max when he was a sophomore at Yale, in 2010, when he enrolled in a workshop I was teaching called Advanced Poetry. He was a hilarious and electrifying presence in class, and his poems even then had flashes of brilliance. I particularly remember a poem in two columns, about buying a newspaper, in which the class decided that the lines would work if he interwove the two stanzas: he assiduously set about doing it—and brought it in the following week, bowing to the class with a flourish. By his senior year he was a member of the Writing Concentration, where he wrote a superb senior project under the direction of Louise Gluck, whom he loved. He arrived at the Concentrators’ Ball—an end of the year reading by seniors—with armloads of cherry blossoms.
When he moved to New York, we tried to meet every week and go to the movies. He did so many things at once that a string of texts from Max would read: “I’m out the door; I’m in a cab; I’m a block away; Here I am!” For an evening at the ballet, he appeared in a kimono. He was often a visitor at my house and spent weeks working on his poems at the dining room table. He loved to talk on the phone—a lost art. “And then what happened?” I can hear him saying, and “what did you wear?” He was mad for clothes and get-ups of all kinds.
Words sung in his head. Max’s poems are conversations of the inner life made audible to the listening ear. There was nothing that mattered more to him than the book that eventually became Four Reincarnations, but the subject line of emails in which he sent the many versions of those pages was always, “A Bewk for Ewe.”
The other night my youngest daughter, Beasie, whom he befriended when she was thirteen, said “Max always asked, first thing, ‘What are you thinking about?’ and he always wanted to know.” In the last years, for me, Max became a trusted reader, and patiently, on the floor of his apartment, over many weeks, helped me arrange and rearrange a new manuscript of poems. While Max wrote about his illness and talked about it, Max wasn’t about cancer: his ardent concerns, always, were poetry, friendship, and love.
I was 17 when I first spoke to Max Ritvo, and he taught me the word lacuna: an unfilled space, or a missing portion of a manuscript. I told him it reminded me of the Trojan priest Laocoon. After that, we were friends. It was that simple. We built a relationship around language, delighting in the associative powers that allowed poetry to bloom where moments before it had felt like there was nothing. We encouraged each other in practices of transformation and redefinition: The Bachelor is commedia dell’arte; gravity is made of ghosts; sadness is hilarious.
This aptness for metamorphosis was, I believe, what ultimately broke open his work into true art. Max turned this into that. He alternated stunningly between haunting left-field similes that come sprinting into the end of his poems, and small magic tricks that happen within the moment of a blink, wherein a man becomes a box or the mind, a bull. From the start, his imaginative potency was incomparable—while I struggled to write generatively, whole worlds seared onto his pages. I was overcome at times with the sheer excellence of the person I saw in front of me—a consummate friend, a burgeoning Buddhist, a natural comic, and, I believe, an intellectual genius—and I felt like an imposter sitting next to him. Like he was both Lear and the fool, both the thundering emotive source and the sad hilarious truth-speaker informing himself. Then who was I? Then Max would say something about me or my work or my shoes and make me feel like I was the play in which it all was happening. And he made nearly everyone who knew him feel this way: like our contributions were meaningful. Like the thoughts in the very backs of heads were important. That we were all growing. That, even if we couldn’t save his life with our friendship, we could at least save his day.
I once described to Max how my partner and I understand love: a pair of people standing back to back, holding hands tightly, gazing out in different directions at the world. He said “Sarah, that’s what our poems do with each other!” I had never thought that a poem could love another poem. What a gift, what a lesson to have learned. To Max, poems are verdant and squishy. They make good eye contact. They bleed a little on their shirts. They live: and if his poems live, even in the darkest moments, the moments of tubes and chemicals and sick mice, then what can we deduce about him?
One of the last text messages Max sent me reads Okay grapes, which I’m sure is a typo, but as it stands could mean so many things. I like the version in which he is calling me “grapes.” When I read it that way, I become a grape for a moment, and I feel happy and close to him. I know this is silly, but I also know he would love it: my small bizarre method of communing, even within the most casual language.
Max is a bright, gaping lacuna in my heart — one that only he would know how to rewrite.
for Max, with his blessing
I made a joke about my father the other day.
Introduced my “Deadipal complex.”
I told it to someone who wasn’t you, that was
my mistake. Arms, I’ve never seen such arms:
shucking the air between us clean, looking
for the sweet center. None there.
You had left the room abruptly, because of pee
or your bad feelings. Bowel movements
thick with emotion. If you die, is it more
or less likely to happen to me? If you die
I will never stop writing about you.
Which shoes to wear.
Fresh basil, its universals.
Gather the fabrics
of “head” and “heart,”
draw them together:
We create winks
where there’s nothing.
at a pond
a good slate
There are many ways in which to do this.
Don the misanthrope’s suit, its pearly starch;
Let everyone love you, more for their sake, less
your own. Let everyone write a poem about themselves
and name it your name.
If you live FUCK I swear I will never stop writing about you
Here is my little shred to you, sadly:
Both Where does the time go and
Here’s where it goes.
I didn’t know Max long or well and the night we met we didn’t really meet. In July 2015, I was on my way to a reading at the 13th Street Theater in Greenwich Village when Max called. He had arranged the reading for Sarah Blake and she had suggested I fill out the bill. Up until then I had only had email contact with him. In one, he’d said Sarah and I were a good pairing because we were both “mystic and comic at the same time.” I don’t think I live up to that but when I got to know him a little better I learned that Max did.
Max was calling to apologize. He’d been looking forward to the reading and to meeting me and reconnecting with Sarah. But he was seriously ill and needed treatment on the West Coast. Surprised, I told him I’d be thinking about him and I hoped he’d have a quick recovery. I didn’t realize at the time how sick he was.
After the reading I met his fiancée (later wife) Victoria. I was impressed with her warmth and good cheer, even while she made me aware of how serious Max’s illness was.
After we didn’t meet, Max would text from time to time. I’m sure I was one of many, many correspondents but his messages were always absolutely particular and engaged. He’d also comment on social media. Two interactions especially solidified our friendship. When I admitted to having a crush on Harold Bloom, he let me know he’d studied with HB at Yale and told me all kinds of fun, R-rated stories. And when I posted a quote from the British novelist Nancy Mitford, it turned out he was a Mitford fan too; he wrote that he wanted to open a restaurant based on Aladdin’s Cave. (For context and to get an idea of what a marvelous thing that would be, see Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love.) I’d never met anyone who shared my love for either of those two idiosyncratic and politically problematic writers and never dreamed I’d find a friend who loved both.
I finally really met Max for the first time at the annual AWP conference in Los Angeles in March 2016. We arranged to meet for lunch at Chego, It was very much a sunny, acutely perfect LA day; I Uber-ed for the first time. Chego serves Korean-Mexican food from a hole-in-the-wall in a covered arcade in East LA’s Chinatown. Max insisted we split the gooey fries with melted cheese, spicy mayo, and truffle oil, which we ate at a picnic table. We talked for two hours: poetry, Harold, Nancy, NY vs. LA, his treatments, which had failed. There was, he said, the possibility of getting in on an experimental trial. He was waiting for a call from his mom, who’d let him know. He accompanied me back to the convention center, where I forbade him to come to my panel. He took the out. He looked exhausted.
I met Max for the second and final time at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, where he read in May 2016. Poetry readings can sometimes also be uninspiring. I’ve never before been at one that was filled, entirely and to the exclusion of anything else, with the clear light of love. The oaken, arts-and-crafts room, a former train depot, was packed with people who loved Max and whom he loved, including his family, his wife. His reading was a performance and an urgent communication. I think everyone there sensed it was the last one, momentuous.
Max died on August 23. A month later, just yesterday in fact, I sat reading in my empty sitting room and suddenly said out loud, to God, “Was that really necessary? Fucker!” No answer. Those of a mystic and comic bent might tell me that I should be grateful I got to know Max at all, for however brief a time. I am. I’m grateful for his brilliance (mystic), which will be made permanent in the form of his forthcoming book, and I’m grateful for his funniness (comic), which will live in my memory, and above all I’m grateful for his gift for avid connection with his fellow humans, which radiated out from him—which, really, was him.
Victoria Ritvo Black
To say Max was just my baby brother would be an understatement as we were closely intertwined and dependent on each other from the very beginning. While Max was my baby brother, I took on the role of caring and nurturing him from when he was born.
As an 11-year-old young girl, he became my human baby doll. I wanted to be included in every part of caring for him. Once he had the words, I became his “pre-mom Towie” and later on as a teenager when watching old home movies he coined me his fire hydrant as I never left his side and was a part of any and all activities he was participating in.
Max was always so special. So caring, vibrant, inquisitive with such a passion for life and learning. We shared a bedroom and spent so much time cuddling, as he was always such a hugger, and talking about any and everything. Early on those talks were filled with such innocence and curiosity about life. Once diagnosed with Ewing as a teenager those talks turned more serious as Max needed comfort, the hugs and tickles of his pre-mom and reassurance that he could “keep going”. Oh, did he continue forward. Our weekly catch up phone sessions would discuss his writing, how he could influence my son Braylan to love writing and what was going on in my life. He cared so much about how he could be included in my daily life and in typical Max fashion needed every detail always.
To reflect back on only a small portion of my Max leaves me feeling a huge void, as he was such a large part of my life. So my sweet Max, I promise to write with a passion always, to read and spread all of your beautiful words on to my sons and friends and to continue watching the Bachelor and listening to R. Kelly. You remain with me always, as you are a part of who I was and who I have become. I love you unconditionally and always. I will forever see the beauty in a thrift store man purse, small shack-like restaurants and walking hand-in-hand while finding a small swing in the park.
To all who knew and did not:
If Max liked you, you knew it. If he loved you, you knew it and he told you. His embracing hug confirmed it followed by his hands firmly planted upon your shoulders, then, direct eye contact. Sometimes there were no words spoken, but his pupils pierced right into your brain, down your spinal cord and into your heart. Max knew if your life accepted his, you were loved for life, your life.
Between the hours of midnight and 5am, we texted, only rooms apart. He sent this:
“At the end of the day all we wanna do is love people and that’s the great mystery. You and I are pretty freakin good at it, not as good as Jesus, but still really good and getting better every day”
The deepest hole on earth is located in Russia, 7.5 miles into the earth. It’s capped off, empty and abandoned. The hole in my heart is open and cannot be filled.
I have been fortunate and blessed beyond expression for the light, life and gift of you my Max. I adopted the word “installed” from your mom. Max, the love you gave me has been, and always will be permanently installed in the core of my soul.
We know you’re not really gone, this is a sick joke! “Its time for dinner, get your buns down stairs”
I Love you
Ariella Riva Ritvo-Slifka
Max was born of my heart, my core… He is my only son, and from his conception, I knew he was the permanent installation of my very being….When he arrived, making his grand entrance, Max style, he brought with him technicolor, music, laughter, but mostly… HUGE LOVE!
As days, weeks, months, years passed, Max and I grew closer than anything imaginable. I home schooled him only to find he was both my student and my teacher. We traveled near and far, to places within and out, always experiencing each trip and lesson fully….
He was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma in 2007. Our lives were forever changed, but not our hearts or our journey toward the limitless love we could share with one another and the world… He was and is my masterpiece, son, student, teacher, protector best friend, then, now and always.
In 2012, Max relapsed after an almost five year remission. His relapse triggered renewed anxiety in me, and so I wrote to him:
To Max: October 30th 2012
I hear your voice…It is morning…Its’ (it’s) time for swirls and twirls
And always wondering
Will it go down? Up? Will it have shape or color?
I never know
And then I hear your voice (or I don’t)
Instantly it is pretzels or a smooth (or a shaky) shake
But I am afraid to hear, and taste
Until I hear the hummingbird sing
So what will it be?
What will I hear?
Will she sing today?
But I always hear the love, even through excruciating pain
Or the silence, oh that silence…
I always know that love (strangely, it recognizes me)
It lives in my center, in my core.
Yes, the love I feel for your joys and pains is endless
It has no definition
It simply is
Me (my), always present in whatever way you need it. Yours to have
VOMIT…RETCHING…Oh no-YES! My love is there to catch it all
Write, smile, giggle, laugh—I’m still here with that
Cry, scream, lose your mind—see, still here my heart, my child.
But I will also be anxious in the morning
And wait to hear what is in your voice
And the hummingbird might not sing
But my love will endure.
Every year for my birthday and Mother’s Day I would have a treasured poem from Max. In the earlier year, they were hand written and placed by my morning coffee mug. Later they appeared in my e mail inbox. Over the years, I would check my inbox if I awoke in the night, just to read his gift. I amassed quite a collection over the years.
This July it became clear to Max that his days were numbered. He knew he would not make his book publication date and was content to just live to celebrate his first wedding anniversary on August 1st. Being Max and never wanting to disappoint, he wrote the Mom poem early, just as he felt the end nearing, knowing my birthday is in September (next week) and that he would not live that long. I treasure his gifts of unconditional love and poetry and adore that though he is dead, I still have a birthday poem. Max loved to make magic, and so while in pain and on oxygen, struggling to breathe, he wrote me this beautiful poem. I am the most fortunate mother in the universe!
Rocking your child to sleep was
never supposed to be to rocking
the child over the rocks—
a boggling black foam
of earth that takes air from the shrubs
so the only breath left’s what you kiss.
And the rocks, even worse,
are the child’s body,
so to hold the boy out of pain
is to hold out of pain
a tumor you hate with all you are.
But here you are
here being the place that he is,
and so it being your place—
because there is no simpler lesson than love.
Though any lesson is simpler and
you both would’ve loved to learn it.
Take credit, dear heart,
you who take no credit:
You share some stories and jokes
and somewhere the enormous heart
rocks the body for a spell,
a last thing that compels
the downwards to sleep
after the rocking.