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By Max Ritvo

After the cocoon I was in a human body

instead of a butterfly’s. All along my back


there was great pain — I groped to my feet

where I felt wings behind me, trying


to tilt me back. They succeeded in doing so

after a day of exertion. I called that time,


overwhelmed with the ghosts of my wings, sleep.

My thoughts remained those of a caterpillar — 


I took pleasure in climbing trees. I snuck food

into all my pains. My mouth produced language


which I attempted to spin over myself

and rip through happier and healthier.


I’d do this every few minutes. I’d think to myself

What made me such a failure?


It’s all a little touchingly pathetic. To live like this,

a grown creature telling ghost stories,


staring at pictures, paralyzed for hours.

And even over dinner or in bed — 


still hearing the stories, seeing the pictures — 

an undertow sucking me back into myself.


I’m told to set myself goals. But my mind

doesn’t work that way. I, instead, have wishes


for myself. Wishes aren’t afraid

to take on their own color and life — 


like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinet

puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.


This poem is from Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo (Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Max Ritvo. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

  • Arts & Sciences
  • Living
  • Nature

Poet Bio

Max Ritvo
A graduate of Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Max Ritvo earned his BA in English from Yale University, where he edited a literary magazine and performed with a sketch comedy troupe, and his MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. He was a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia. Ritvo was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma at age 16 and died from the disease at his home in Los Angeles.

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