“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.”
So begins “Poem to My Litter,” a work about living with cancer by Max Ritvo ’13 that appeared in a June 2016 issue of The New Yorker. An English major in Jonathan Edwards College, Ritvo died of cancer on Aug. 23 at his home in Los Angeles. Family members and friends interviewed by the News lamented the loss of a gifted poet who had made a profound mark on American literature despite his youth, as well as a cherished friend, a loving son and a devoted husband.
Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer, when he was 16. He spent one year during high school at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where his cancer eventually went into remission. Ritvo became a member of the Yale College class of 2013 and soon walked through the gates of Phelps Hall as an excited freshman who impressed those around him with his poetic muse and sharp insights. His cancer, however, resurfaced in 2012, during his senior year, but he went on to graduate from Yale, complete an MFA program at Columbia University and marry his wife, Victoria Ritvo, last August.
“Max’s distinction at first lay in his extraordinary critical intelligence; his was a voice quickest to pay homage,” said Louise Glück, an award-winning American poet and Yale English professor who taught Ritvo when he took her introductory poetry course and who later became his senior project adviser. “He was as hungry, as determined, as passionate a student as I have ever encountered. And he made himself into an unforgettable poet, and irreplaceable friend.” Riva Ariella Ritvo-Slifka, Ritvo’s mother, said Glück became the biggest influence on his work.
Ritvo’s poems often dealt with the topic he encountered the most — cancer — but his friend Shon Arieh-Lerer ’14 said Ritvo did not glorify the fight in writing or in life. He lived knowing that he would die sooner than most his age, Arieh-Lerer said, so his poetry explored the real human emotions that only death and suffering could evoke. It was natural that he wrote about the experiences that accompanied cancer, but Ritvo had no choice in the matter. He did not want to be remembered as “the cancer boy,” Arieh-Lerer added.
“While Max wrote about his illness and talked about it, Max wasn’t about cancer — his ardent concerns, always, were poetry, friendship and love,” said English professor Cynthia Zarin, who taught Ritvo in 2010 in her advanced poetry class. Zarin called Ritvo a “hilarious and electrifying presence in class,” and the two continued to work on his poetry after he graduated from Yale.
Arieh-Lerer remembered that Ritvo never hesitated to find humor in his situation. With their close friends John Griswold ’14, Nathan Campbell ’14 and Andrew Kahn ’14, Ritvo and Arieh-Lerer founded the comedy troupe His Majesty, The Baby. It was previously known on campus as Outside Joke, and when Ritvo learned around Thanksgiving break of his senior year that his cancer had returned, the group performed a comedy show on the topic. In retrospect, Arieh-Lerer said the show might have disturbed some people in the audience — for example, when the performers re-enacted a medical emergency — but he added that it was a therapeutic way for Ritvo to express himself.
Those close to Ritvo agreed that his personality extended into his poetry. He was a promising young poet who had won the 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his work, “Aeons.” Ritvo’s debut collection of poems, “Four Reincarnations,” will be published as a book by the end of this year.
“I am so grateful for Max’s writing because Max as a person comes bursting through in his words,” said Ritvo’s friend Rachel Nalebuff ’13. “And in this way, new people can continue to meet him, to be charmed by him, to be moved by his wisdom, and those of us who knew him can continue to get to know him, to think with him and to see the world through his mischievous and very kind blue eyes.”
Former Head of JE Penelope Laurans said Ritvo “never compromised in poetry or life.” He was admired and loved by his friends and by those who crossed paths with him. Those relationships, Laurans believed, were even more important to Ritvo than poetry.
Since his death, Ritvo has been remembered nationwide as an artist, a scholar and a poet, but those close to him said it was their friend that they missed the most. Arieh-Lerer said Ritvo taught him what friendship meant, and he described their relationship as something that became “metaphysical.” Ava Kofman ’14 noted that Ritvo’s “inexhaustible sense of astonishment” for every part of the world made him extremely fun to be with. Sarah Matthes ’13 said it is easy to remember Ritvo in terms of superlatives and elegies, but the Ritvo she missed the most was the fashion consultant, noodle expert, consummate editor, emotional-phone-call partner and friend.
Bonnie Antosh ’13, a close friend of Ritvo and his wife Victoria, also noted the special bond that the couple shared. The two kept inventing new languages to express how much they loved each other, Antosh said, adding that Ritvo loved his wife “beyond words.”
Ritvo’s wife, Victoria Ritvo, told the News that they met during a philosophy summer camp at Cambridge University in England. Max Ritvo was 14 that year, and she was 15. She confessed that she had a crush on him since the very beginning. The two were best friends before they became lovers in the summer of 2013, when Ritvo moved to New York after his Yale graduation.
“Max is my best friend, and I’ve always been in love with him,” Victoria Ritvo said. “He just loved everyone in his life so much. He wanted to take care of people he loved. Even when he was the sickest he had ever been, he was still taking care of people.”
Ritvo grew up in a close-knit family, and he was a precocious child who learned to read at three and began to write at three-and-a-half. He went everywhere with a book in his hand, his mother said.
“He was born with a smile on his face,” she said. “And he was the best son a mother could ask for.”
Max is survived by is by his wife, Victoria Ritvo, his father, Edward Ritvo; his mother, Riva Ariella Ritvo; and his sisters, Victoria Ritvo Black and Skylre Ritvo Oryx; His stepfather, Alan B. Slifka, ’51 predeceased him.