Four Reincarnations

“One of the most original and ambitious first books in my experience.” —LOUISE GLÜCK
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Reverent and profane, entertaining and bruising, “appealingly sly and surprisingly whimsical” (New York Times), Four Reincarnations is a debut collection of poems that introduces an exciting new voice in American letters.

When Max Ritvo was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age sixteen, he became the chief war correspondent for his body. The poems of Four Reincarnations are dispatches from chemotherapy beds and hospitals and the loneliest spaces in the home. They are relentlessly embodied, communicating pain, violence, and loss. And yet they are also erotically, electrically attuned to possibility and desire, to “everything living / that won’t come with me / into this sunny afternoon.” Ritvo explores the prospect of death with singular sensitivity, but he is also a poet of life and of love—a cool-eyed assessor of mortality and a fervent champion for his body and its pleasures.

Ritvo writes to his wife, ex­lovers, therapists, fathers, and one mother. He finds something to love and something to lose in everything: Listerine PocketPak breath strips, Indian mythology, wool hats. But in these poems—from the humans that animate him to the inanimate hospital machines that remind him of death—it’s Ritvo’s vulnerable, aching pitch of intimacy that establishes him as one of our finest young poets.

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Max Ritvo

Max Ritvo (1990-2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of The Final Voicemails, edited and introduced by Louise Glück, and co-authored Letters from Max with Sarah Ruhl; both books were published posthumously. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker and Poetry, among many other publications.

Praise and Prizes

  • “Good-humored, appealingly sly, and surprisingly whimsical.”

    New York Times Book Review
  • “This is an extraordinary body of work, the poems marked by intellectual bravado and verbal extravagance; Max Ritvo’s dazzling suppleness of mind manifests itself in electric transitions and unexpected juxtapositions, in wide-ranging reference and baroque allusion. But what makes this book unforgettable is the core of intense emotion at the heart every poem. Four Reincarnations is one of the most original and ambitious first books in my experience.”

    Louise Glück
  • “Electric … The distinguishing quality of a Max Ritvo poem is a leap from the literal to the fanciful, from the pedestrian to the performative… . Although he is inimitable, his example is there for young poets wanting to forsake simple transcriptive dailiness for the wilder country of the afflicted but dancing body and the devastated but joking mind.”

    Helen Vendler
    Poetry Magazine
  • “A Max Ritvo poem is:
    A map drawn by hand to show where the body is buried.
    A card trick with words … ‘Don’t show me how you did it.’
    Like reading the last sentence in a book first.
    Dragging words across the page like a bow across a string.
    A piece of candy covered with ants.
    Like silverfish ate the words off a page … and left you a riddle.
    All of the above.”

    Tom Waits
  • “Max Ritvo brings us along where poetry needs to go. While allowing for the possibility of a confessional mode in the details, Ritvo’s poems take stock of the nineteenth-century sublime, adding the contemporary death of God, and going forward with bravery, irony, and the most compassionate sense of humor. His poems defy solipsism and enter a cosmology of unconditional love. How lucky I am that I found Max Ritvo; he makes me love poetry again.”

    Sarah Ruhl
  • “Silly, sweet, and sad all at once … Max Ritvo was able to revel in the absurdity—and poignancy—of his condition.”

    O, the Oprah Magazine
  • “An accomplished, surprising, and bizarrely erotic debut … Vital and unflinching poems that emerge from the unflagging energy of a mind embedded within, yet constantly struggling beyond, the suffering of his body … Max Ritvo’s poems sizzle over the all-too-brief fire of his hungry and staggering imagination.”

    Publishers Weekly
    (starred review)
  • “Max Ritvo’s work is extracelestial, riddled with brilliance and with ecstasies. If you could confect a numinous cauldron and stir into it the lumens of Christopher Smart’s Spiritual Musick, the spirit-hounds of Hopkins’s ‘terrible crystals,’ the hysteria of Monty Python’s antics, you would render incarnate Four Reincarnations. The poems flicker like fireflies let loose from their captivity in a mason jar, fulgurating like Nobodaddy’s business.”

    Lucie Brock-Broido