Review by Mary Guterson
The poet Max Ritvo died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 25. Less than three weeks later, his first book of poetry came into the world (Four Reincarnations; Milkweed) and was immediately celebrated for its depth and originality, its humor in the face of life and death’s most serious and vexing questions, and for its unflagging humanity and compassion.
A second—and, I assume, final—book of poetry (The Last Voicemails, Milkweed 2018) was released this past September, along with Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship—a volume comprising the four years-long correspondence between Ritvo and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl. This brief and intimate epistolary lens into Ritvo’s remarkable and playful brain, one that bursts with imagination and love, is the most beautiful book I’ve read in years. Reader, a warning: you will cry.
Ritvo and Ruhl met in 2012 when the young poet attended Ruhl’s play-writing course at Yale. Ruhl writes: “Max walked into my first class and it was as though an ancient light bulb hovered over his head, illuminating the room…. He seemed to have read everything, from Vedic texts to contemporary poetry, and yet he had the air of a playful child.” He was also in remission from Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and often fatal cancer that he’d been battling since the age of fifteen.
In class, Ritvo proved himself a delightful and brilliant student, and he and Ruhl often met up for tea and conversation, discussing art, life, and love. But midway through the semester, his cancer returned. Thus began their correspondence via email and text, an ongoing dialogue on subjects ranging from the mundane to the intellectual to the spiritual to the personal and back again. Ritvo’s letters reveal his world to be one of acute mindfulness, carefully rendered in language that showcases his sweet and inimitable vision.
Here he is describing the sound of the radiation “beam-gun” as it zaps his tumors: “Sarah, it sounds exactly like a tiny man with a tremor is opening up a can of soup inside the gun. There’s an almost liquid echo once he opens the soup and the beam goes in. I swear I almost cried the first time I heard the little soup opening. It was the least likely place in the world to find soup, and to find someone tending to soup, and there it all was.”
The letters grow deeper and more intimate. There are discussions about death and discussions about love. There is humor and there is great sadness. There is hope and there is the grief of hope dashed. Ritvo marries and Ruhl gives one of the blessings at his wedding. Ritvo grows ever more sick. Poetry appears, often poems written to and for one another as an extension or continuation of a conversation. After seeing one of Ruhl’s plays, Ritvo writes, “Your play continues to ripple in me. Attached find a poem stirred up by it. I don’t think my poem is in a finished state and would love your criticism.” In her response, Ruhl—still his teacher—gently comments on the parts of his poem she loves, and the one part of the poem that may still need work. She then sends him one of her own poems, describing it as one “that reminds me slightly of some of the questions you are posing.” Ritvo responds, writing: “I want to ask you about your process—you produce things that are so alive and flexible and bamboo-like.” Ruhl: “I don’t know much about my process except that it involves tea.”
At a certain point, the idea arises to create a book from their letters to one another. Perhaps the knowledge that their intimate discussions might one day become public had an effect on what each of them chose to write. But the book doesn’t read that way. If any of the words have been edited for clarity or beauty, such touches are not felt.
In a book such as this, a reader knows from the start that things will not end well. And they don’t. Ritvo dies and the rest of the world—his family, his wife, his friends, and of course, Ruhl, will live on without him. Ruhl, for her part, has been changed forever. How could she not? Theirs was a deep and loving friendship. Ritvo describes their collaboration this way: “And we talked in person, on the phone, and through our letters, and became friends in the deep sense of You Are Not Alone. And we discussed True Love and The Afterlife. And we never figured anything out. And that was what there was to figure out. And now, if I ever hug you, it is Sarah hugging you.”
It’s difficult, if not heartbreaking, to process the absence of such a vibrant, vital, and beautiful man. Certainly, there is his published work to turn to. And for the truly Ritvo obsessed, there’s a rabbit hole of online videos, interviews, essays, and so on, to explore. I spent hours down that rabbit hole, enough so that his face, voice, and words now reside in my brain. It’s (obviously) a one-sided relationship. Still, knowing him in this way makes me feel Not Alone.
Mary Guterson is the author of the novels We Are All Fine Here (Putnam) and Gone to the Dogs (St. Martin’s). A former public radio commentator, her written work has appeared in numerous publications. Currently, she teaches in the writing program at Indiana University East.