ISSUE 15 FEATURE
BENEATH THE GLOWING GOLDEN HOUSE: A POET’S WIDOW ON IMAGINATION
BY VICTORIA RITVO
My husband, Max Ritvo, was a well-known poet who died in the summer of 2016 at the age of 25. Max had cancer off and on since he was 16, and when our long-time friendship became romantic in our early 20s, he was already terminally ill. Still, we always talked about the future, and we always talked about children. We made it as concrete as possible: we’d use his teenage-generated, pre-chemotherapy, frozen sperm to petri-dish us a daughter named Nina, after our favorite singer, Nina Simone. With her in mind, we invented our own family rituals. We lamented how on Halloween, children can dress up however they like, yet houses can only be decorated with things like pumpkins and skeletons. Instead, we’d celebrate Imagination Day. Nina would decorate our home however she liked—as a holy underwater cavern guarded by mer-people monks, or a cemetery for the letter O, or a giant model of the interior of the digestive system.
This kind of thinking was natural for Max, but not for me. I didn’t have an imaginative childhood; I didn’t play pretend, and my early pre-scientist mind didn’t know how to engage with what wasn’t real or true. Max once asked me, “What would you do if Nina came running into our room now, and told us there’s a lion in her bedroom?” I said I’d calm and comfort her, and explain that there are no lions in New York City. Max said that if he had done this as a child, it wouldn’t have been a cry for help, but an invitation to play. My instinct was to tend to her fear rather than to her imagination. I wanted to be able to do both, and so imagination became a throughline in our relationship.
But dreaming about our non-existent daughter and her imagination occurred against the backdrop of surgery, chemo, and clinical trials. Max talked about this juxtaposition of dream and reality in an interview with NPR:
I like talking about the future with my wife. She and I are on the same page, and I feel with her that if we’re engaging in any talk, we really have the same understanding in mind. And that understanding is that there is a shadow life haunting our future. Beneath the little glowing golden house that’s swimming through our minds, there’s a bed of ashes, and there’s a funeral there, and we can’t escape that.
The pit was the reality of Max’s death, and the house was the life we fantasized about. Both futures couldn’t be true at the same time, but still, they interacted, the embers of the ash always fueling the imagined golden house.
Max told me from the beginning that the way he engaged with the world was through layers of “translucencies.” His view was that imagination is not just something sequestered in the brain, but something you can create that can act on the world around you. He and I often took “mindful walks,” in which we played with the world through these translucencies. We’d imagine that we were in a 2D Mario video game and part of the pavement was lava we had to avoid. We’d listen to the change in the pace of someone’s footsteps and hear how it seemingly caused a subway train to pass under our feet. We’d look at the duck pond in Central Park and see it as a giant brain where the ducks were memories, swimming across. Imagination can then spill out of the mind—when you walk in a different direction because that shade of grey means “lava,” it affects your behavior just as much as a real-life puddle does. In that way, the translucency is created from the world, but it in turn also affects it.
Max said he was a “partisan for the present.” He was frustrated with how much of language was future oriented—adopting a new diet, changing careers, making resolutions. Always tomorrow, next month, next year. The present moment was all Max had, and so to him, it was sacred. This speaks to readers because it seems astonishing that someone whose life was filled with so much horror could be so vivacious, so humorous, so loving. He was able to do this by utilizing the same translucencies we made on our walks and bringing them to the pages of his writing. When he needed inspiration, he’d look for some knick-knack in a drawer or feel the texture of some fabric or his pills and let the superimposed mind do the heavy lifting.
In his first full-length book of poetry, Four Reincarnations—which came out weeks after he died—he often wrote about the imagination as translucency. In the poem “The Curve,” he writes “When I hear the word rock, / a translucent lump / shimmers in front of the world. // To its right, a piece of glass cuts a clear finger, / and to its left, there pulses a rocky, low, cold crust.” He writes in the poem “The End” that imagination is “sizzling” on top of the world. And other poems are wild rhapsodic universes where he moves within these translucencies. The cancer is there, but it is the shadow underneath the play-space of his imagination. There are wild angry revenge poems against a nemesis he names “Randal.” There are apocalyptic death poems where the moon overdoses and dies, and heaven becomes a vacuum. The love poems take place in a utopian world where “Heaven Is Us Being a Flower Together,” and where “We are becoming a bulb / in the ground of the living, / in the winter of being alive.”
In this way, Max was able to turn his hospitals, his scans, and his tumors into something beautiful. Once, as Max was heading in to have another lung surgery, the doctor gave him a drug to put him under, and just before he fell asleep someone asked him how he felt. Max said: “I feel like my nose is lapis lazuli. And it’s a saddle, and the elephant of my mouth is being ridden by my lapis lazuli nose.” I laughed, and Max squeezed my hand and addressed me in third person, like he was writing a poem: “She looks at me with sad compassion. She will go anywhere with me. But no matter what, we have loved fully. We share the same eye, full of colors and pictures. We end and start each other’s sentences, and each one is of love.” Then he looked down to his chest: “I’m sorry, Body. I tried to give you lovely little air babies.”
I recorded it in my notebook because I knew that when I saw him in the recovery room afterwards, it would make him happy to see how his drug-addled imagination transformed suffering. Also, I wanted it for myself.
Max may have been a partisan for the present, but what people didn’t always see was how much he struggled with that self-given title. He wanted to feel the present moment for what it was, but when he did, he’d often fall into anxiety and panic: over dying and leaving behind his loved ones; over not dying and going through hellish treatment; over whether it was selfish to allow people to dedicate so much of their lives to a dying man; over whether he’d die before he made an impact; over what people would think of him or his work. These ruminations start to show themselves in Four Reincarnations. In the poem “The Senses,” Max just wants to feel how good everything feels, but “I keep having thoughts— / this thought always holding at bay the next thought / until it sours into yet // another picture of dissatisfaction.” Maybe it wasn’t the pure present he’d advocate for, but one that had been augmented by his imagination. Or maybe being a partisan for the present was, ironically, more of an intention or aspiration than a present state.
And it got harder. Our last hopeful medical treatment failed, and there were no more options. I feel like for the logic of this essay, I’m supposed to describe what that time was like for us. But it’s hard for me to even think about the months at the end of his life in my own head, let alone to bring you, the reader, into it. At this point I think it’s enough for you to understand that as time went on, Max’s present moment was no longer just medicine and surgery, but was the approach of death itself, and that meant no more hope for the future. Before, the reality of the pit of ashes may have helped create the glow of the golden house, but now the ashes reignited a fire, engulfing it. He had to find a new way of using imagination.
This change is perhaps most clear in how the role of imagination transformed in our relationship. Max said in a late-in-life, follow-up NPR interview that he and I didn’t talk about children anymore, that we were focused on the moment now and the day-to-day care, rather than the future. I think the truth of it is more complicated. We did talk about our relationship in the future, just not the pretend future we engaged with previously. Now we talked about the future without a living Max, and what he or I could do to bring some part of him into it.
At the end of Max’s life, he wrote me a series of letters to be delivered at spaced intervals. I got the first one a month after he died. In it, he wrote:
In some of these notes I might ask you to go out on a little excursion, a movie, or something. And I hope you’ll do this for me. And I hope you’ll spend as much time on that excursion as happy as you can—knowing that for many parts of it you’ll be sad because it’s being colored by me not being there. But that’s the thing—I am sharing it with you. I’ve visited in my mind, and you’ll go there in person, and that will build the experience together.
Max said that writing about dying was easy, but writing about death was hard. Death is nothingness, not something to imagine translucencies on top of. In this letter to me, Max was not imagining himself into the golden house, he was imagining himself into the pit of ashes, the world I live in now without him. He was using imagination, but of a different kind: one where he could imagine himself into reality, seeing the world for what it is rather than fodder for his mind to play with. He imagined himself as the translucency for the people who’d outlive him. He did this with people he loved, and he did this with his writing. In Letters from Max, the book he co-authored with the playwright Sarah Ruhl, Max writes to her that we need to “read the afterlife like a poem.” In an earlier letter to Ruhl, he also wrote: “Dreams show the life beyond life, but death is not the life beyond life. We’re making heaven every moment, and death means punching the clock out. No more working at heaven.”
His late-in-life poems have been beautifully collected into a posthumous collection, The Final Voicemails. In the first, eponymous poem, he writes “All this time, I thought my shedding / would expose a core, / I thought I would at least know myself.” I imagine here the shedding of the translucencies he’s so used to using—the unreality that he superimposed on top of reality. Without it, he imagines the world without him. He writes in the poem “Anatomic and Hydraulic Chastity:” “Sometimes I can almost feel / what the world would be like without me” and in the poem “Leisure-loving Man Suffers Untimely Death,” he is resigned, writing “Sure, I wish my imagination well, / wherever it is. But now // I have sleep to fill.” He writes in “My New Friend:” “if I am ever a thought of my widow / I’ll love being that.” The love poems to me at the end are not fantasy worlds where he and I were becoming a flower together as heaven—instead, a poem about my “Next Date Alone,” opens with the lines “The stage is empty. / How do you fill it? / With music.” Max tells me in the poem that “If you wish to see me / you’ll have to sing.” In real life, he told me that when I missed him I should go on one of our mindful walks and imagine something into my surroundings, and that would be a way to be with him.
In this last book, there’s a pattern of Max trying to focus on the pure present without the imaginative translucencies, and he uses the poem to deal with the anxiety that inevitably resulted. Once, at the end of his life, Max and I sat for a meditation in his bedroom where we intended on focusing on the sounds around us. No imaginative flourishes, just sitting. Halfway through, Max stopped to write a poem. He had gotten too emotional, hearing the wheeze in his breath from his tumor-burdened lungs. In the poem he writes “Why do I only hear such unnatural things” and “me: just practice living with yourself deaf. / Sometimes your brain is as unwelcome // as muscles or guns.” I don’t think when Max wrote the poem he was thinking specifically of the golden house over the pit of ashes, but the title of the poem is “The Soundscape of Life Is Charred by Tiny Bonfires.”
I’m a meticulous record-keeper. I’ve always kept records of things that were meaningful to me, and I hated the thought of forgetting things that were important. I knew from when we started dating that I’d want as much recorded of Max as possible, since I didn’t know how much time I’d have with him. I have tons of videos, notes, quotes, doodles, and anything else I could keep in as pure a form as I could. If we played a word game or had an unusual conversation, afterwards I’d get my notebook and reconstruct the sequence as well as I could, often asking Max to fill in if I forgot something. And in return, he had me as the safekeeper of our memories when his chemo-brained mind couldn’t remember himself.
I saved everything that was meaningful to me, but I never recorded why it was meaningful. My default was to reconstruct memories by quotes, rather than giving my own thoughts. Max knew this. He wrote an essay about his writing and the connection to his own faulty memory:
Victoria doesn’t write about her memories, but with a combination of doodles, graphs, and quotations pulled from a notebook she keeps to supplement her memory, she can accurately construct a ghost-movie in both of our minds at once. She would never presume to understand the rhythms of other people or the world well enough to make anything up. She doesn’t even trust herself to rephrase what she herself says.
This is a problem for writing a piece like this. I need to actually talk about my memories and not just provide records. But I’m a scientist. I work in a computational memory lab. This process is not natural for me the way it was for Max. Parts of writing this essay aren’t so bad. I can, for instance, explain what Max meant when he described “translucencies” to me. I can do that because I took notes on it. I can review my notes and summarize the explanation for you, the reader. And wherever I can, I want to find quotes to show you. Even when describing my own memory, I want to give you proof—that’s why I went looking for Max’s quote above. But how do I explain the ways I have incorporated these things into my own life, as a grieving widow? I don’t have a record for that.
In writing early drafts of this essay, I kept comments throughout for my friends who read it, where I say things like “not sure if this sentence is true, need to look at my records and find out” or “I don’t actually remember what my exact thought was here, I will have to fill in an approximation later.” I think this is my default behavior coming out, as I don’t want people to think I’m 100% precise about something that’s an approximation. Some ancient part of me wishes I could still flag the approximations now.
When I was young, I just thought this was a feature of how my mind worked. When I was a sophomore in college, I told Max that I couldn’t free associate. He said “strawberry!” and I said nothing. I said, “It’s fine, there’s just something weird with my imagination compared to other people.” Max would not believe it. He was adamant that the problem wasn’t with my imagination, it was with my perfectionism. He said that I free associated any time I have a conversation with him. It’s not that I didn’t see myself as a creative person—I’m a visual artist—it’s that I had a mental block with creative language. He told me not to worry, and by the time he was finished with me, I’d have the confidence to hear my own voice in my head.
Something ironic just happened as I’m writing this. I wanted to try to describe, in writing, the role that I know Max played in helping me formulate my thoughts. I’ve been having trouble putting what I want to say into words. But in looking for Max’s quote above about my supplementary memory I created in my notebook, a different quote caught my eye—one I had completely forgotten about:
She says what she most likes about my mind is what I think makes my mind the cheapest. She loves how my mind can predict the ways her mind works. Many times a day she’ll ask me what she’s thinking, and I’ll tell her, and she’ll say, You’re right.
Thanks, Max. You’re right.
Max was so central to the way I learned to be imaginative, and without him here, the task seems unachievable to me. I don’t feel confident writing without Max there to mind-read and confirm that my thoughts are in fact the thoughts that I’m thinking. There are lucky moments like this one right now, where I can find some validation within the masses of communications he left behind, and Max can continue to play the role he did before.
Even so, it’s never enough. Time with him was finite, and I’ll have more and more time without him, and more thoughts that I’ll need help expressing without him. And I’ve had to formulate a lot of imaginative thoughts without him while writing this. Many times, I’ve been able to. I’m a thousand steps ahead of where I was before Max, when nothing came to mind when someone said strawberry (“vanilla!” “chocolate!” “cookie!” “jar!” “pickles!”). But I often feel like I’m cheating. I’ve tricked myself so I don’t feel like I’m the one who has to come up with the next thing. Instead, I imagine Max sitting right next to me confirming what I’m actually thinking. Rather than yelling out “Strawberry!” I say, “Mind-Max, what was the idea I had about when we meditated together that time?” And my mind gives me the answer, and I can trick myself into thinking it’s Mind-Max giving me the answer. And I say, “You’re right.”
I’ve used this new access to my imagination a lot in managing my grief. In the time immediately following his death, whenever I received one of the monthly letters from him I wrote a response letter back, and I’d read them both out loud. When I went on one of our walks, I’d make up a conversation between him and me. I’d look for where he was hiding in my surroundings—in the flashing lights of a palm reader’s sign, or in a postcard someone dropped on the ground. When I went through the required classes for IVF to freeze embryos, the other couples in the room got their instructions in folders with labels like Hilary and James, or Anne and Nick. My folder said Victoria and “Max.” With quotation marks. I started to feel sick, but then I imagined Max seeing this and laughing, faking being offended, and joking that I should always reference him with air quotes from now on.
But I can’t always imagine him sitting with me. And it gets harder as time goes on, as I forget his expressions and his intonations as we talked. I have the recordings of him reading poetry, but Max sounded different when we were sitting in our bedroom, talking, compared to when he was out and performing. Most of the time, when I ask Mind-Max in my head what to do, I hear nothing back. I wonder if Max knew this would be a problem before I did, because even by the second letter, I realized they were going to be impossible to write responses to. They’re more lessons for playing or loving, rather than conversational letters. At first, this made me sad. I wanted to superimpose an imagined translucency of Max onto my Max-less world. In the same way that the translucencies weren’t as useful when his death came more into view, just superimposing an imagined Max is harder as I have more time without him. I do think he anticipated that, and he wanted to prepare me for it. I’d need a way to feel his reality even when it’s clear he’s not there. I’m not great at that part yet. Hopefully I get better in time, like Max did. For now I’m just recognizing when I’m having thoughts I wouldn’t have let myself have if it weren’t for Max, and he can be real in this moment in that he’s affected my behavior—the same way as the imagined lava had just as much power as a real puddle when you step to avoid it. Like Max said, dreams show the life beyond life, but death is not the life beyond life. The afterlife is the work of the living.