Poets Online Talking About Coffee: Max Ritvo

What are you top three memories related to coffee?


I remember the lid on the tin of my mother’s coffee being very gummy and fun to pull back. The inner walls of my nose would pucker into little harbors for the coffee powder flakes. The flakes were like the fireships you’d get in level three of Age of Mythology. I imagined them waiting in line in the air, lethal and silent and orderly. And then they would, one-by-one, dock and blow themselves up into smell in my nose.

I never saw my mother actually drink the coffee, which she did every breakfast. When I eat with people, I tend to look away from their mouths as they physically ingest. Seeing them eat reminds me that I have to put food in my mouth too, which fills me with anxiety.

So, not seeing my mother ever put the coffee in her mouth, I would just see tired Mom and a full cup of coffee, and then an empty cup of coffee and a changed Mom.

Before her coffee, my mom was all body and no voice. She’d walk to the kitchen in silence, looking extra thin. Like many people, she wouldn’t make eye contact, and only spoke in a grumble. My mother was very sick when I was a child, and I felt this most strongly in the morning. Her little body was never the source of her strength—it was her voice, the vowels pricked open with a bright Israeli hook, that would pull the entire day out of thin air, as she’d dictate play tasks, writing and drawing projects, the meals I ate, and the pretty clothes I wore. I’d sit with her at the table, silently gazing into the eye of my egg, and then suddenly the coffee cup was empty and Mom was flushed with color, the arms of her cloud pajamas waving like flags under a magic wind.

This was my first experience with a chemical changing a human being. And the chemical was perfect. She never suffered as a result of the coffee, the transformation took place instantly, and lasted all day. I think I thought all chemicals would work like this.

When, at age sixteen, I was diagnosed with cancer, and told I would undergo chemotherapy—I think I thought it would work like my mother’s coffee. Not that it would feel good—no, this would be more of an “anti-coffee.” A green super villain potion instead of an earth-colored shaman elixir. The suffering would be horrible—but it would all come on instantly, and leave instantly. My hair would pop off all at once, like a light bulb filament bursting. I’d wake up with vomit bursting into my hand like a cuckoo out of a clock for six months, and then this would cease completely. And the tumors would be scrubbed away, like Oxyclean foaming on a shirt.

I think, had I realized how chronic chemicals work, I would’ve been more scared. I kept saying to myself, as I gradually slipped into infirmity, well this is bad, but it’s yet to really get intolerable—the water isn’t quite boiling around this little frog. I’m not screaming in pain, and every three weeks there’s a week where I don’t vomit daily. And when I eventually realized that I was already enduring the intolerable, that the intolerable was just this degree of suffering, plus time, plus the horrifyingly indeterminate nature of that time—by that time it was too late to be scared—or anything much other than busy and confused. I watched the cells in my blood run out on the lab reports. I held the tubes going into my body like stuffed animals.

When I suffered from mental illness a couple years later, I again thought the anxiety medication would work like coffee. It didn’t. The same with antidepressants. The same with anything in my life that I thought of as a ritual—be it falling in love, or taking the SAT’s, or writing a poem. I believed these things would transform me, instantly teleport me to a happier country, and make me fluent in its language, which I had been mangling my whole life without ever noticing, because there was no one in the sad old country to point it out.


My father rarely drank coffee when I was a child. He was an athletic psychiatrist, elderly but young-looking, who had a ton of heart attacks, and needed a heart transplant when I was in second grade, but never any sleeping aids or stimulants. As he aged into his mid-eighties, and his naps got longer and longer, he started to supplement his day with coffee. It went from one cup of what he would vociferously insist was decaf, to three or four regular cups a day. He has lost a lot of weight in the past few years, but it’s more likely from age than coffee. Now he says “Boy I love coffee!” He sings a few lines from the song “Java Jive,” by the Inkspots:

I love coffee, I love tea,

I love the Java Jive and it loves me,

Coffee and tea, and the java and me,

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup,

He tells me the song is by the Mills Brothers, and when he sings it, it’s in his imitation of Al Jolson, whom he saw perform in his childhood, and he smiles a leery grin over his cup.

The Mills Brothers Wikipedia page quotes Herbert Mills saying this about the band in WW2:

“We left England for the last time just three days before war was declared on Germany and the only boat we could get was to Australia. We were overseas from then on except for two months in 1940 and then we went back to South America. We didn’t get back until 1941. In the meantime the Ink Spots were coming up, and people had sort of forgotten us.”

Java Jive, released in 1940 by the Inkspots—was coming out just when the Mills Brothers were starting to feel replaced by them.

During WW2, my father was rationed a bicycle since he lived more than two miles from his school. The Ritvos were also rationed extra gasoline, since my grandfather was a medical doctor. My grandfather’s name was Max and he died from a heart attack, after which I was named to replace him. I wonder if the coffee ration affected us in any way, so I text my dad:

“Did Grandpa Max ever drink coffee?”

He texts back: “Very rarely”

I text him: “What did you guys do with the coffee rations you got in WW2? (I’m writing about coffee)”

He responds “I don’t remember getting any rations for coffee only gas and my bicycle.”

He then calls me, but I turn down the call and text him that I’m busy writing.

I listen to the voicemail he’s left and he says “Your writing? You know what you should write about?” and tells me Ben Carson is saying that if the Jews had guns there wouldn’t have been a holocaust. Dad calls this “Old blame the victim shit” –and says Ben Carson doesn’t realize that Hitler’s rules said Jews couldn’t have guns. I think this was Ben Carson’s whole point—that gun control laws allow Hitlers. But I think my dad thinks Ben Carson was just calling the Jews pussies. My dad ends the message by repeating “Write about this. This would be a great article.”


But my voice is like my mom’s—not like my dad’s. My voice talks about politics when it’s important to those I love. My voice concerns itself with sensual data: sparkly bangles, kimono, and my bloody nose, and my blood tests and stool samples, and the blood tests of other people and their stool samples. The best thing about my voice is how it orders my loved ones into being happy.

And that’s why I get so upset when people offer me biscuits after I tell them I very rarely drink coffee. It happens a lot. I’ve always found the substitution weird—really it’s just another thing to put in your mouth: the similarity between coffee and biscuits ends there. Coffee is a liquid stimulant that gives you diarrhea. Biscuits are a solid food used as a sleep aide and binding agent to facilitate constipation. Why offer two such radically different things as substitutes for one another? Aren’t they supposed to work in concert to provide you with a balanced stomach and palate?

I think people just like having food in their stomachs, but I don’t. I don’t like the sensation of starving, but I hate the sensation of overfullness. And the sensation of normal hunger is so rare in me. It’s an inappropriate sensation. It’s a selfish, boorish sensation that doesn’t mind all the labor and murder that goes into making food. Eating is a moment where I have to remind myself of my frightening origin as an abuser of the vegetable and animal world. It’s a moment where I plug up my speaking orifice and can’t defend myself nor defend anyone else. And I have to be silent and alone with a flavor. And if it’s a gross bite, I can’t even scream, because my mouth is full of what is disgusting. The people who say ignorance is bliss, and silence is golden, are saying so because when you eat you are ignorant and silent, and those who say it are gluttons who are comfortable shutting up and stuffing themselves and being happy. When people tell me “have a biscuit!” I feel like they’re saying “Shut up” and also “Strip.” I feel naked without my voice, truly naked and without armor, in a way much more upsetting than anyone seeing my body without any of my pretty clothes.

Unfortunately, rumination like this does not cure cancer. Writing does not cure cancer. Food cures cancer, they say. And some people say coffee enemas cure cancer. And other people say chemo. But nobody says writing. I have cancer and writing. I have been trying for a decade now to fit the square peg of pretty words into the round hole of physical illness. I even shave the edges of the square peg by making my words about my body, but I wonder how far this can get me.

I’ve let myself write to you in exchange for making myself finish a bowl of rice—so perhaps that’s how I’ll stay alive. I’ll be a mom saying to a son: “One more bite, and you get to write one more sentence!”


Max RITVO is a poet living in Manhattan. He was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, AEONS. His poetry has also appeared in Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. He is a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Max’s prose and interviews have appeared in ParnassusHuffington Post, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a sketch comic in the NYC-based troupe His Majesty, the Baby. Follow him on twitter @Maxritvo.

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