Poets in Memoriam: Ritvo, Kelly, Perillo

Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day in the Episcopal Calendar, when we honor and commune with our dead. In our tradition, saints are not only the officially canonized heroes of the church, but all members of the community, just as we are “a priesthood of all believers”. This fall, the American poetry community lost several notable figures I’d like to mention on the blog.

Max Ritvo studied under Louise Glück at Yale, taught poetry at Columbia University, and was an editor of Parnassus. His collection Four Reincarnations appeared posthumously from Milkweed Editions. In August, he died at 25 from a rare pediatric cancer, which was the subject of many of his dazzling, edgy poems. Read more about him in his New York Times obituary. I discovered his work in the Iowa Review just days before I learned of his passing. In “Leisure-Loving Man Suffers Untimely Death”, he wrote:

Sure, I wish my imagination well,
wherever it is. But now

I have sleep to fill. Every night
I dream I have a bucket

and move clear water from a hole
to a clear ocean. A robot’s voice barks

This is sleep. This is sleep.
I’d drink the water, but I’m worried the next

night I’d regret it.
I might need every last drop. Nobody will tell me.

Boston Review in 2015 featured a seven-poem sampler of his work, selected by Lucie Brock-Broido. Here is the beginning of “Afternoon”:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
—my body lights up for life
like all the wishes being granted in a fountain
at the same instant—
all the coins burning the fountain dry—
and I give my breath
to a small bird-shaped pipe.
My favorite is “Poem to My Litter”, published in The New Yorker this past June. In tones that are tender, sardonic, and melancholy, this poem addresses the laboratory mice that have been engineered to carry his tumors in hopes of finding a cure.

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.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other honors. She passed away last month at the age of 65. When the news broke, my poet friends on Facebook shared many of her sensual, profound poems. I was especially moved by “The Leaving”, from her debut collection, To the Place of Trumpets. It begins, “My father said I could not do it,/but all night I picked the peaches.” Instead of a literal narrative about girl power or individuation, though, the harvest becomes a mythic task that stands in for every occasion when faithfulness to mundane work brought us into transcendence:

I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.

In a similar vein, she wrote in “Blessed is the Field”:

In the late heat the snakeroot and goldenrod run high,
White and gold, the steaming flowers, green and gold,
The acid-bitten leaves….It is good to say first

An invocation. Though the words do not always
Seem to work. Still, one must try. Bow your head.
Cross your arms. Say: Blessed is the day. And the one

Who destroys the day. Blessed is this ring of fire
In which we live….How bitter the burning leaves.
How bitter and sweet.

Lucia Perillo was a MacArthur Foundation fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2010 collection Inseminating the Elephant. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, she passed away in October at the age of 58. From the New York Times obituary:

In an interview for The American Poetry Review in 2014, she presented her situation straightforwardly. Asked about battling her disease, she said: “I don’t battle M.S. I relent to its humiliations.” How did she manage not to fall into despair? “I’ve already fallen. This is the voice from the swamp.

The above-cited interview includes the poem “A Revelation”, which begins with the narrator watching prostitutes in Nevada buying their groceries. She concludes:

…If you follow
any one of the apparitions far enough–the
fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves
and liars–you will find that beauty, a
cataclysmic beauty
rising off the face of a burning landscape
just before the appearance of the beast, the
beauty
that is the flower of our dying into another life.
Like a Mobius strip: you go round once
and you come out on the other side.
There is no alpha, no omega,
no beginning and no end.
Only the ceaseless swell
and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.
Watch the way brilliance turns
on darkness. How can any of us be damned.

May these poets be blessed in the next world as they have blessed us here. Lux perpetua luceat eis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.