Cachexia

Max Ritvo - 1990-2016

Today I woke up in my body
and wasn’t that body anymore.

It’s more like my dog—
for the most part obedient,
warming to me
when I slip it goldfish or toast,

but it sheds.
Can’t get past a simple sit,
stay, turn over. House-trained, but not entirely.

This doesn’t mean it’s time to say goodbye.

I’ve realized the estrangement
is temporary, and for my own good:

My body’s work to break the world
into bricks and sticks
has turned inward.

As all the doors in the world
grow heavy
a big white bed is being put up in my heart.

More by Max Ritvo

Touching the Floor

I touch my palms to the floor
and granite rhinos surge up my arms
and lock in my shoulders.
Water flecks on my back
and my head is shaved
by bladed cream.

But then my time in my body is up
and it’s time for my mind:
It seeks wisdom
and the rhinos fall into a well,
their faces falling apart—

I want to know what their last words are
but their lips are fading into the purple.

I put my hands into the ground again
but rhinos come only for the body
and never for the mind.

I used to want infinite time with my thoughts.
Now I’d prefer to give all my time
to a body that’s dying
from cancer.

Earthquake Country Before Final Chemotherapy

For the first time tonight,
as I put my wife to bed
I didn't have to shove her off me.

She turned away in her sleep.

I wondered what was wrong with my chest.

I felt it, and the collar bone
spiked up, and where she'd rest
her cheek were ribs.

Who wants to cuddle a skeleton?

My skeleton wandered from the house
and out onto the street.

He came, after much wandering, to the edge of a bay
where a long bridge headed out—
the kind that hangs itself with steel

and sways as if the wind could take
away its weight.

There were mountains in the distance—
triangles of cardboard—
or perhaps the mist was tricking his eyes.

The instant the mist made him doubtful,
it turned to rain.

The rain covered everything. The holes
in his face were so heavy
he wondered if the water was thickening—
if he was leaching into them.

He panicked. Perhaps he was gunked up
with that disgusting paste,
flesh, all over again.

If I were alive I'd have told him
I was nothing like what he was feeling—

that the rain felt more like
the shell of a crab
than the way I'd held him.

That it felt more like him.

But I wasn't alive—
I was the ghost in the bridge
willing the cars to join me,

telling them that death was not wind,
was not weight,

was not mist,
and certainly not the mountains—

that it was the breaking apart,

the replacement of who, when, how, and where
with what.

When my skeleton looked down
he was corrupted

in the femur by fracture,
something swelling within.

Out of him leaked pink moss.
Water took it away.

December 29

I found myself unable to consume
the scallops after reflection—
their whole lives were 
eating and suffocating.

This is much sadder than tortured people—
in extreme pain we leave our bodies
and look down to commit the pain
to memory like studious angels.

The waiter brought me two fortune cookies.
One future was traumatic enough.
I decided to open just one cookie—
the one on my right side.

It said in blue on a thin white strip,
You must learn to love yourself.

*

The cookie was much less sweet
than my psychiatrist.

Earlier that day he said he was proud
that was my tumors grow
my self-loathing seems to shrink.

My teeth made the cookie blades
that cut my tongue, and I spat it out.

I was seized with a question for Dr. Possick,
but he was on the other coast, fast asleep.

I would've asked
If all of me is the part that's loving
what is left to love?

*

I was suddenly overwhelmed with certainty
that the second cookie could answer my question.

I imagined the paper as a body—
a second body for me,

baking in a clay oven
half beneath it and half overhead.

I didn't open the cookie, though.
I have to grow up at some point—

my imagination can't always be kicking fate
as if it were the floor at a stupid party.

*

But when you decide someone has something to say
their silences speak to you too—

The cookie's clear wrapper had a rooster printed on it,
the lamp's reflection made a little sun
clutched by the talons, deep in the clay:

What is left to love
is the part of you that is already dead.

*

The dead part of me
is very busy preparing heaven for the rest.

He envisions it as a dream cemetery:
no rabbis, wildflowers and scrub everywhere,
rolling hills with nothing marked,

computer chips clipped to the ears of the dead
so that loved ones can visit the exact spot.

He is unskilled with his hands,
but he's moneyed and shouts well.

It's hard to love people committed to projects:
when I tell him he's abusing the labor

he smiles proudly and says, God can only do good,
I can do good and bad.

 

Related Poems

The Branches

The branches looked first like tepees,
but there was no emptiness.

Like piles of leaves waiting for fire:
at the foot of the wisewoman trees,
at the foot of the broken General,

next to the tree of the veteran
girl who died this summer       slow red
cloth