Portrait of poet Max Ritvo. Photo Credit: Ashley Woo, Ari Ritvo

By Max Ritvo:

Holding a Freshwater Fish in a Pail Above the Sea

He strips health out
of the water,
reminding me
of my mother.

I walk in sea
and hold my sweet
fish above me,
no small feat

given the rice-
hard salt scraping
my eyeballs twice
each blink of lid.

I put the pail
in the ocean
and then unveil
the decorous

frail white-eyed koi.
But the salt, I
think, will destroy
his rocking breath.

Where he wants space
he will get salt.
Where key traces
of the silence

should hang inside
his cathedral
of musical

Instead, delicious
crystal drills
will crack it all
open; the church,

its ebbs and flows.
I scoop the fish
up by its nose,
a forked affair.

I show you him.
Looks fine to me
you say (Ha!), dim
and lovely you.

This happens more
times, stopping and
starting, me showing
you my full hand,

my fish. Where have
you gone? I was
hoping to wake
from this dream

with you drawing
the curtains, a gold
glow on the sheet
wrapping me up.

You aren’t here
but I’m aware
that somewhere
you have moved.

Today’s poem is from Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016), copyright © 2016 by Max Ritvo, and appears here today with permission from Milkweed Editions.

Max Ritvo (1990 – 2016) was an American poet. Milkweed Editions posthumously published a full-length collection of his poems, Four Reincarnations, to positive critical reviews. Milkweed has announced two more books, Letters from Max (co-written with Sarah Ruhl); and a second collection of Ritvo’s poems, The Final Voicemails, forthcoming in 2018. Ritvo earned his BA in English from Yale University, where he studied with the poet Louise Glück, and his MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. In 2014, he was awarded a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook AEONS. He edited poetry at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and was a teaching fellow at Columbia. Ritvo died from Ewing’s sarcoma on August 23, 2016, and is survived by his wife Victoria; his father Edward Ritvo, his mother Riva Ariella Ritvo-Slifka, and his three siblings, Victoria Black, Skye Oryx, and David Slifka. Ritvo’s work has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-day on (Annotated bio courtesy of Wikipedia, with edits.)

Guest Editor’s Note: Knowing about the life and death of the poet can provide a lens through which to read each poem in Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations. This poem from the collection, “Holding a Freshwater Fish in a Pail Above the Sea,” offers a number of thematic opportunities, but is most powerful through the biographical filter. The poet controls the language—each word, line, and stanza confounds expectations and inspires repeated visits to the poem and its evocative images.

At the outset, there is fear and love for the fish bound in memory and fear. The gentle rhyming quatrains are almost imperceptible behind the fierceness of feeling, but they provide the rhythm and sway of the water controlling the speaker’s emotions even in a dream state. Shifting awareness supplies a type of psychoanalytic wish fulfillment accompanied by an acceptance of the inevitable.

Each turn in the poem feels natural and effortless within a controlled formal structure, and this makes the emotional charge more concentrated and pungent. The lines “Where he wants space/ he will get salt” are especially potent and seem to anchor the speaker in reality revealed by the metaphors and symbols that emerge from the subconscious. Ritvo’s poem exposes the terror in living a life that ends in death and does so in language that is accessible and miraculous.

Want to read more by and about Max Ritvo?
The Poetry Foundation

Guest Editor Anne Graue is the author of Fig Tree in Winter (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), and has published poems in literary journals and anthologies, including The Book of Donuts (Terrapin Books), the Plath Poetry Project, One Sentence Poems, and Rivet Journal.


After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, the time has come for change. I am thrilled to expand my role to Managing Editor and provide the opportunity for fresh voices to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. Today and in the coming weeks, please help me welcome a series of guest editors to the newest incarnation of the Saturday Poetry Series.

Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB

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