Book Review

The Final Voicemails by Max Ritvo

poetry by a then dying, now dead, young poet

If I was dying, would I write poetry about it?

Yes, absolutely yes.

Would I write poetry about how I’ll miss the living and how the living will miss me?

Almost certainly, yes.

Would I describe my physical decline and would I describe the things I used to distract myself, however briefly, from the imminent cessation of mortality?

Yes, of course I would.

What am I describing?

Although there are moment in Max Ritko’s The Final Voicemails that fulfil all of these criteria, what it fails to do – except once, imo – is anything near as gut-wrenchingly powerful as My Chemical Romance did in their 2006 hit (was it a hit?) ‘Cancer’, which aside from being a song the teenaged Scott [Manley] Hadley used to love to play on the decrepit, out-of-tune piano that used to block the hallway of my parents’ house in the years before it needed the space for wheelchairs (the piano was free when the Catholic high school my sister attended got a grant from some – likely guilt-ridden – former pupil (or maybe just the diocese (I don’t know what that word means, I didn’t go to Catholic school (I am, alas, a (non fee paying) grammar school boy))) to replace all the pianos on site and they offered all the defunct ones gratis free to current pupils, provided they collected it themselves. We borrowed a van and the family friend who owned the van to shift the piano across town. I’ve never written much about this piano. I never played it as much as I should have done, could have done. I’ll find (if I can! (later note: I can’t!)) some old songs of mine I recorded using it, once I’m not on an bus (though when I’m not on a bus I’ll probably be at work or teaching Chinese children or at some medical appointment somewhere (it’s relentless relentless and also time-consuming how much I have to check in with the doctors now that they’ve seen into me) or exercising so I don’t get fat from all the binge eating I do because I’m so bored and sad boohoo)), it is also a piece of music whose lyrics (and this verb is KEY) imagine what it’s like to die of cancer.

The imaginary is almost always more powerful tool than reality.

I weep when reading novels, I never weep when reading the news.

Is that just me, though? I mean, I’m not really “normal”, whatever that means. (I read the definition of “neurotypical” yesterday and it definitely excludes depressed/anxious people, which is annoying.)

I’m not dying of disease at the moment (though my penis has been hurting like it did eighteen months ago, though this time it’s not from as a hindsightedly obvious a cause as the “moisturiser” I was vicious-circle-ingly using to alleviate dry penis-skin), but I suppose I am slowly getting back into self harm and even if I’m not self harming I am thinking about it every minute of the day, like I keep hiding in the stairs whenever I’m waiting for the subway because I don’t trust myself to not jump into freedom if waiting near enough to the tracks to make the leap, and I’m also writing things like this and putting them in a public place again, which isn’t a good sign.

I paid my UK taxes last weekend, though, and now I can budget for new glasses (which will improve my quality of life hugely as the low level headache I constantly have will be diminished if I’m not looking at the world through scratch-ravaged glass) and then once I’ve done that I can start budgeting for a trip to Mexico and then once I’ve paid for the flights and sleeping places for that I will buy myself a Nintendo Switch because now that I’ve committed to making no friends in Canada (it’s been a full year, now, the window is closed, the opportunity missed), I may as well have new Mario, and once I have these things to look forward to, maybe I’ll feel a little brighter. Or maybe I’ll just have to wait until the doctors make me switch onto the mega-strong meds which they keep trying to push me to take.

Anyway, I thought Max Ritvo’s book – excepting the poem ‘Quiet Romance’ and a couple of other pieces I remember less well (the final part only of ‘My New Friend) – was a bit too poetic, a bit too poetry to truly capture the humanity of death, distracted as it was by classical allusions and imagery of the trad lad poet type. I know what I mean by that: the centaurs and the talk of souls and the bits about having a child and having a wife and not having “learnt to cook” (a man who hasn’t “learnt to cook” is a boy, unless there are real psychological or physical barriers) and other bullshit boring normie male normie poetry bullshit.

Nature is shit, allusion is vague, direct exploration of simple emotion, that’s what I like to read and (though I acknowledge this is opinion rather than fact) the type of writing I believe is more useful to society.

Apologies if this offends any friends of Ritvo’s, but if you want brief art on how it feels to be dying young of cancer, a better place to look is The Black Parade, Track Eight.

Here’s a video I decided to record of me singing that song. If it’s not here that’s because I forgot to do it, probably because I was too depressed and decided to booze or sleep instead (the latter is more likely tbh as I’m a bit too much of a risk to myself when intoxicated lololol).

Byeeeeeeeee.

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