THE FINAL VOICEMAILS

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THE FINAL VOICEMAILS BY MAX RITVO, EDITED BY LOUISE GLÜCK

In his second collection of poems, The Final Voicemails, the late Max Ritvo pulls back the curtains of the rooms that occupy his body and mind. Ritvo passed away after a long battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, but here, in these pages he still welcomes us into his home furnished with pain, loneliness, and joy all abound with his signature wry humor and transcendent hope. His poems are unapologetically vulnerable, and he champions for a deep richness of experience: “Let room mean death or room mean life, / but let the room always be full. / Down with the Landlord! / He is leaving you empty!”

In his struggle between his terminally ailing body and his distressed mind, Ritvo elevates and finds safety in the stillness of the body over the entropy of the mind. Though the mind can be possessed with self-pity, the body dances. As his mind becomes exasperated (“sometimes your brain is as unwelcome / as muscles or guns”), he pays more attention to the current that runs through the body, a “general current / one feels through all forms / of refreshment: the down of sleep, the up of water.” He finds solace and retreats into the meditative and miraculous nature of breath: “For a moment, my nose / had to deal with so much violence / just there, in the air trying to reach me, / that there was no time to think my violent thoughts.”

Ritvo calls us to celebrate life and tenderly affirms that all pieces of existence, no less his own, are vital instruments: “Sure my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too.” He fills an empty stage with music, composing his own afterlife and prophesying blissful reincarnations: “I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs / and if I am ever a thought of my widow / I’ll love being that.” In The Final Voicemails, Max Ritvo, "carrying the words, / shaking with tears," sings with a language of love and generously invites us into the hospitable shelter he designed for himself.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns