In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.
Over the next four years–in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed–the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s exchanges, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love. “We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is,” Ritvo writes. “And that’s all I want–is to know you forever.”
Ruhl is a playwright, but she originally wanted to be a poet. (“I began to think there was a kind of equation for playwrights—indifferent-to-bad poets made good playwrights,” she writes.) Ritvo tried his hand at writing plays in Ruhl’s class but quickly returned to poetry. They kept in touch, writing emails between visits and poetry readings. Ruhl adds context when letters miss some of the story – when Ritvo’s cancer returns, the treatments he goes through, and the joys they share when they are able to meet in person.
Going into this book I was expecting the letters, expecting the cancer, expecting the thoughts about life and finding meaning.
I was not expecting the poetry.
Some loop closed by old age,
the droop of an old man’s head
conferring a measure of acceptance,
head already looking at the ground, thinking:
when will a hole open up
and I’ll fall into it?
They send poems back and forth, first ditties written long ago or in stolen moments, but they evolve and add another layer to the correspondence. Images posited in letters, something as simple as the comfort of soup, are transformed when put into verse. It’s like I’ve been given the key to their shorthand, and a key to their linguistic hearts.
I connected with some of the poems more than others. I especially liked Ruhl’s – the images, the language, and the friendship-ly love hit me in the gut. Ritvo’s poetry doesn’t have the same punch but his letters make me think all the same.
When I see you I am happy
even when you’re sad.
Meet me at the carousel
in this life or the next.
Meet me at the carousel
I’ll be wearing red.
My eyes sometimes glossed over with the religious talk, but it’s neat seeing things from the perspective of a Catholic turned Buddhist and a Jewish boy turned atheist. Your mileage will likely vary.
A touching, beautiful look at the end of a life through the eyes of two poets. Bring some tissues.