MAX RITVO’S Four Reincarnations feels like, and is, a first book: it follows a young poet finding his footing, disentangling the kinds of things he alone can do from the things, the sentences, even the kinds of words, that his models and peers — from Louise Glück to, say, Kathleen Ossip — might deploy. Like them, he seeks discoveries that are both allegorical and visceral, true for him but not for him alone. In a short tribute to a painter friend, for example, he exclaims, “Seeing is the faces’ nervous delicious Lord.// Listening to you makes me naked.” (If you saw her paintings, you might feel that way too.)

But Four Reincarnations also feels like a last book: as the publicity around it, and some of its best poems (e.g. “Poem to My Litter,” from the June 27 issue of The New Yorker) make clear, Ritvo has serious, likely untreatable, cancer. He seems to have written most of this book with the clarity, the near equanimity, the distance from ordinary reversals and struggles, of much older poets who know that they are dying (say, the Wallace Stevens of The Rock). “Poem to My Litter” addresses the tumorous mice in which new cancer drugs are tested. The poet gives each of them his own first name, then hopes they can look past their own “rage, fear — the stuff that makes you see your tail / as a bar on the cage. But then the feelings pass […] if a whole lot // of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace. / Which is what we want. Trust me.”

The title of the book, which may refer both to Ritvo’s own personae and to Stage 4 cancer, tries to let us see (as Randall Jarrell once said of late Stevens) what life looks like as you leave it, and for this poet of Generation Y that life can look — ironically, quietly — like a glowing screen. At “the end of suffering,” on “a dark porch,” he discovers

The chairs watching shadows on the glass top
like white poodles, all named Handsome,
from different phases in your life,
watching television pictures of your sex-dreams play out.

Contemplating his friendships, his marriage, his hospital stays, the other things he has really seen — like “Holding a Freshwater Fish in a Pail Above the Sea,” or Melissa Carroll’s paintings — Ritvo turns, time and again, to mortality, be it his own or somebody else’s (several poems commemorate Carroll). But mortality is rarely his only subject: shyness, gratitude, and erotic attachment are as important as death itself.

In “Touching the Floor,” Ritvo writes about stretching, about light exercise, in a way that emphasizes his physical awkwardness, his intuition that his mind does not quite live in his body — an intuition that some of us whose doctors believe we are healthy also share. “Poem Set in the Day and in the Night” takes on the same topics. It opens: “Just do things that are meaningful to you. / Go to the beach, says the Doc.” But the man in the poem discovers that he does not belong in his sunlit body, would not belong to it, even without the disease: he needs the light of imagination, the moonlight, “to bathe the body in soapy light” where “memory breaks apart.”

If you read academic lit-crit, you may have encountered Jesse Zuba’s The First Book, which examines poetic debuts as covert manifestos, ways to position oneself among styles and institutions, and yet to “resist conformity” at the outset of a career. You might also have read Last Looks, Last Books, Helen Vendler’s compact, magnificent look at how modern poets “to whom the concept of an afterlife is no longer available” consider “the interface of death and life.” Not every first book is a First Book in this sense, nor is every final book a Last Book, but Four Reincarnations certainly feels like both. One of the poets in Last Looks, Vendler writes, “learned to examine death with an impersonality of style that announces her eventual critique of poems exclusively personal in utterance.” That poet is Sylvia Plath, and while Ritvo’s temperament never resembles Plath’s, he too wants to make sure that his poems about facing death are not just about him. Instead, he tries to make himself at once distinctive and representative, and at his best he can do so with an understated, disarming informality:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.

One of his finest poems about his illness is also one of his simplest, “Plush Bunny,” which begins with the lines:

My poor little future,
you could practically fit in a shoe-box
like the one I kept peshul bunny in
when I decided I was too old to sleep with her.

The nonstandard language of children — “peshul,” “Pee Pee Priestess” — provides rare relief from the very common words, the restricted diction, that come as naturally to Ritvo as they do to, say, Glück. They invite us not to feel bad for him, but to imagine more about him.

It’s tempting — it might be accurate — to call Four Reincarnations post-ironic; if there were not so much mortality in it, I might even call it (approvingly) faux- or neo-naïve, since Ritvo is able to give poems titles as richly wet as “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together” and to mean them as gestures of affection (there is not a sarcastic line in the book). Sometimes (as when he’s self-conscious about the word “lyric”) the Generation Y, recent-MFA aspects of Ritvo’s poetry get in the way of his subjects: breaking descriptive passages short, or breaking them off in order to comment about them, he shows signs of what another young critic, Gillian White, calls “lyric shame,” the awareness that some forward-thinking readers consider single perspectives, consistent world-building, and prose sense passé. Sometimes, though, the self-aware extravagance, the faux-naif aspects, and the simpler descriptive aspects work together: the poems are equally conscious of impending death and of the next day’s life, having spent time in a pool of self-skepticism and then emerged shining, shockingly clean:

On the other side, you’re the body again
and the shadow is again shadow.

You can enjoy anything — you don’t remember
how clumsy the old hands were, how picky the tongue.

When you smile, every tooth is a perfect circle,
when you write, every letter is a perfect circle,

when you weep, sorrow comes clean out.
Hello again, you say. Hello again.

Heather Hartley’s Adult Swim is her second book — Knock Knock came out in 2010 — but it too feels like a debut: it announces her goals, and tells us what it is doing while it does what it does. Hartley, like Ritvo, has become a poet of tempus fugit, of carpe diem, but she is ungainly and effervescent, where he is deliberate; her poetry speaks as if impromptu, “to me, to that guy, to my Mom, / or to the grieving sky, out of range of any god.”

Rather than saying a balanced hello to the world, Hartley’s poems encourage us to embrace everything embraceable. She seems, like Ritvo, post-ironic, but she has nothing of Ritvo’s reserve, nor does she insist (as he does) on turning details into tropes. Instead, she’s willing — indeed, she sometimes requires herself — to get literal. Her fast-paced, delightfully unpredictable verse asks you to celebrate “your doggish slavery to what- / ever you’re a slave to, even your potato chip obsession, or what- / ever makes a craving in you, makes a hole in the heart of your / dark night, like for chewing gum.” Her rationale is that “Life can be / abrasive & you need / some sort of sweetener, it’s that simple.” Sometimes it is; sometimes we wish it were.

Often long and never remotely metrical, Hartley’s lines can seem ephemeral, much as stand-up comedy seems ephemeral. Yet, we know by now, the best stand-up routines do last, and so could the best of Hartley’s poems, fueled as they are by friendly chaos, the wish to keep talking. “Rules sometimes are nuts,” and Hartley would like to find ways to live outside them, to live more — both in the sense of experiencing more (raised in West Virginia, she lives in Paris and writes poems of European tourism) and in the literal sense of living longer than she once expected.

Hartley, too, has recently been treated for cancer , but she accords less attention to medical history than to the bubbly, inconsequential hours of her life: “It’s the kind of cafe that makes you want to steal spoons.// It’s the nape of a Friday’s neck, the first Friday of sun, of shedding, of everything” (“Lifting Spoons”). Such a day looks more important after the kind of days envisioned in the poem below, given whole, along with its title:

What I liked best was the long flume & —

We’re in for a ride —
it’s the amusement park you were never expecting
sans s’amuser:
cancer.
Find your deepest sea legs,
now.

Hartley shares Frank O’Hara’s sense that the littlest things are really the big things. She seeks, as O’Hara did (the line is on his tombstone), “grace to be born & live as variously as possible,” and her excitable phrases tell us why they are glad to encounter every street scene, every stone:

And then, they
saved my life — saved
my life.

Lutetia, Paris, Ile-de-France,
city & island & bridge,
whatever name you want,
I’m yours.

In certain Renaissance paintings, signs of worldly enjoyment — fruit, for example — also remind us that we will die; in Hartley’s poems, though, signs of apparent dejection or disappointment remind us that the sun comes back and days go on. (Her enjambments, her frequent hyphenations, are ways to resist the idea that any one end is The End.) When she’s on — and, of course, she is not always on — she doesn’t so much risk triviality as enjoy it, and even when she complains, she’s having barbed fun. Here, again, the title runs into the poem (which Hartley arranges in monostichs):

Every time you leave, the basil plant dies

like clockwork, I’d like to say, but nothing is like clock-

work — sprockets & digits & regular pay-

checks in the — how do you say dying stronger? — sun of early Nov-

ember when some drowsy gods crash the apartment . . .

What I want

to know is why all the saints don’t come in & save

us, or at least the plant, or some apprentice

savior slip us an idea of how to pro-

ceed.

The difference between Hartley’s best poems and your uncle’s boring tales of his week in Toulouse isn’t just that Hartley’s phrases are better composed but that she acknowledges and puts in its place the possibility of total loss, the nearness of death, the fragility of all pleasures, such as tourism, pop music, and conversations with strangers:

Yes, the saxophonist is playing ABBA under a tree, under sloping
sun in the garden of Villa Borghese, it’s springtime, you see
this from the long benches and trees greened, this one has no
scent, when you want every-
thing to go away, he said it goes
away.

Everything does go away, sooner or later; poetry exists in part because the language of prose, the language of verifiable propositions and confirmable requests, cannot fit all the wishes that we harbor within ourselves, or in spite of ourselves. Not least among those is the wish for more time, more experience, on this Earth. We can delight, with Hartley, in what we might find next, or we can learn, from Ritvo, to look around, into the realm of wisdom, and then back again, at what we have already learned.

¤

The poet Max Ritvo passed away on August 23, just weeks after this review was written.

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Stephen Burt is professor of English at Harvard.