Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo

36904320In 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.”

Review:

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?

(Ruhl)

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.

(Ruhl)

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.

On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt

Liberation cover 3How do you imagine trans liberation while living in a cis world? On My Way To Liberation follows a gender nonconforming body moving through the streets of Chicago. From the sex shop to the farmers market, the family dinner table to the bookstore, trans people are everywhere, though often erased. Writing towards a trans future, H. Melt envisions a world where trans people are respected, loved and celebrated every day.

Review:

Haymarket Books recently had 90% off sale on all their ebooks, so you can bet I was all over it!  This is one of the four nonfiction books I picked up and, by virtue of being a chapbook, the shortest at 28 pages.

Melt, who is trans and genderqueer, writes directly about their experience.  We sit with them as they are misgendered, deadnamed, and forced to deal with injustice every day.

But they won’t stop murdering.
Stop legislating. Stop imprisoning.
Stop claiming we are ruining our
countries, families, friendships
and futures too.

When every day
we awaken to
build them
anew.

I’m grateful that Melt put their lived reality down on the page for others to experience – the emotion comes through loud and clear. However I’m not the biggest fan of the poetry itself.  The work’s missing oomph for me, that punch that makes you want to sit with a poem after you finish it, or go back and reread it immediately.  Some of the images will rattle in my brain for a while yet but the words themselves will unfortunately fade more quickly.

Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim

I picked up this book after seeing the Meonicorn’s lovely own voices review (check it out!) and watching Benaim perform what I think is the best poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”.  Stop reading and take three minutes to watch – it’s amazing and has over six million views to prove it:

If you have ever experienced depression or anxiety or know someone who has these poems will speak to you, as they get right to the core of the experience.

at the grocery store i practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending i am a regular person buying her groceries & not a very sad person trying to distract herself from crying.

If you don’t know anyone with depression or anxiety the poems will open your eyes to what it’s like for you brain to go off in a direction you don’t like but are powerless to change.

36070215& this is why i have a hard time talking about my anxieties / not the big heavy anxieties / but the small ones / the ones that change my earrings / & chip at my general level of self-esteem / the ones that gorge on celery & watermelon after a heavy weekend / crying quietly / standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice

In addition to these poems about mental health there are others about love, loneliness, abandonment, and memory.  With a couple of exceptions they don’t feel as strong but I’m having trouble pinpointing why.  Is it a personal thing, that they don’t speak to my lived experience? (Which seems silly, because I have loved boys who haven’t loved me back.)  Is it that the images aren’t as memorable or striking?  Or is my newbie poetry spidey sense picking up that they’re just not as “good”?  I’m not sure.

While this all sounds melancholy the poems aren’t fatalistic.  You sense that the author is working to understand herself and why things happen, all on the bedrock conviction that she will get through it.

i will let dance parties be the hospitals i heal in

if i need more help i will let the medication help me
i forgive my body for being a machine after all

A great read for anyone who has dipped their toes in these dark waters if only to know that:

i am not alone
because i feel alone

 

There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker

Synopsis:

30304222There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st century black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics. The poems weave between personal narrative and pop-cultural criticism, examining and confronting modern media, consumption, feminism, and Blackness. This collection explores femininity and race in the contemporary American political climate, folding in references from jazz standards, visual art, personal family history, and Hip Hop. The voice of this book is a multifarious one: writing and rewriting bodies, stories, and histories of the past, as well as uttering and bearing witness to the truth of the present, and actively probing toward a new self, an actualized self. This is a book at the intersections of mythology and sorrow, of vulnerability and posturing, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence.

Review:

While I imagined myself a poet in high school (didn’t we all?) I haven’t spent much time with the form since.  Reading Why God Is a Woman reminded me that yes, poetry is awesome!  I picked up There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé to help understand an experience outside my own, that of an African-American woman today.

There are some political poems (“The President Has Never Said the Word Black“) but the thrust of the work is rooted in pop culture, especially music.  The Beyoncé poems are especially wonderful – here’s the beginning of “Beyoncé On The Line for Gaga”:

Girl you know you ain’t that busy.
Without me            you’re just two earsstuffed with glitter.

Parker manages to be funny and skewering at the same time.  In “Afro” she lists what she’s hiding in her hair, including “buttermilk pancake cardboard… 40 yards of cheap wax prints… blueprints for building ergonomically perfect dancers & athletes”.  And when Parker goes for the jugular she doesn’t miss, like in the first lines of “The Gospel According to Her”:

What to a slave is the fourth of july.
What to a woman is a vote.

Being newly returned to the world of poetry there are some pieces I had a hard time wrapping my mind around.  Maybe it’s a lack or perspective or the wrong mindset, maybe I’m just out of practice.  So if you’re looking for instant clarity you may be disappointed but I’m sure these poems will gain meaning the more time I spend with them.  Good stuff.

Thanks to Tin House Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews

Synopsis:

25607518Why God Is a Woman is a collection of poems written about a magical island where women rule and men are the second sex. It is also the story of a boy who, exiled from the island because he could not abide by its sexist laws, looks back with both nostalgia and bitterness and wonders: Why does God have to be a woman? Celebrated prose poet Nin Andrews creates a world both fantastic and familiar where all the myths, logic, and institutions support the dominance of women.

Review:

Jen Campbell defines prose poetry perfectly: instead of watching the movie of a novel it’s like wandering through an art gallery, pausing before each painting to soak up its beauty.  The poems are indeed beautiful, but also so much more – in turns deep and funny and skewering.

What am I doing here? he asked God.  And Why am I so small compared to the sky, so hairless and weak compared to the rest of the animals, so mortal and lost compared to You?  Night after night man raged against God, until at last She grew tired of listening to him.  And so God created orgasms.  After every orgasm, man fell into a sleep, deeper than the sleep of stones.  And God at last was able to gain some peace of mind.  But that was when woman began to complain.

In this world men are said to be descended from angels, and grow wings once they reach puberty.  They sprout from their backs leaving embarrassing trails of blood, and the men use absorbent pads to hide their shame.  Women are said to have risen from the sea and are the elite, the politicians, any one that holds any scrap of power.  By turning gender roles on their head Andrews does more than merely satirize, she shows that binary gender norms are by their nature arbitrary and absurd.

If you need a little more convincing check out Jen’s review on youtube but if not – go. Read.  It’s amazing.