Thank you Max
Max Ritvo, an accomplished poet who spent much of his life under the cloud of cancer while gaining wide attention writing and speaking about it, died of the disease on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 25.
Mr. Ritvo talked about his work and illness in interviews on radio programs including “Only Human” on WNYC and “The New Yorker Radio Hour.” His poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine and The New Yorker, and his first published volume of poetry, “Four Reincarnations,” will appear in the fall.
In “Poem to My Litter,” which The New Yorker published in June, Mr. Ritvo wrote of an experiment in which cells cloned from his tumors were placed in mice in the hope of finding more promising treatments. He names each of the mice Max. He wrote:
My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way
that Man’s old genes are in the Beasts.
My doctors split my tumors up and scattered them
into the bones of twelve mice. We give
the mice poisons I might, in the future, want
for myself. We watch each mouse like a crystal ball.
I wish it was perfect, but sometimes the death we see
doesn’t happen when we try it again in my body.
My tumors are old, older than mice can be.
They first grew in my flank, a decade ago.
Then they went to my lungs, and down my femurs,
and into the hives in my throat that hatch white cells.
The mice only have a tumor each, in the leg.
Their tumors have never grown up. Uprooted
and moved. Learned to sleep in any bed
the vast body turns down. Before the tumors can spread,
they bust open the legs of the mice. Who bleed to death.
Next time the doctors plan to cut off the legs
in the nick of time so the tumors will spread.
But I still have both my legs. To complicate things further,
mouse bodies fight off my tumors. We have to give
the mice aids so they’ll harbor my genes.
I want my mice to be just like me. I don’t have any children.
I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2,
but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.
They don’t know they’re named, of course.
They’re like children you’ve traumatized
and tortured so they won’t let you visit.
I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.
Even my suffering is good, in part. Sure, I swell
with rage, fear—the stuff that makes you see your tail
as a bar on the cage. But then the feelings pass.
And since I do absolutely nothing (my pride, like my fur,
all gone) nothing happens to me. And if a whole lot
of nothing happens to you, Maxes, that’s peace.
Which is what we want. Trust me.