Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a FriendshipNonfiction, Poetry
Reviewed By Kelly Weber
- Milkweed Editions (2018)
- 336 pages
What is “perhaps more interesting than either of us doing our literary speechifying, or spiritual sermonizing, is watching a friendship evolve through the trivia of time and place, and the vagaries of the body. Poetry is not embedded in such mundane concerns. It flies.” So Sarah Ruhl aptly describes the ethos of Letters from Max in her afterword to this collaborative text, a collection of letters and poems written back and forth with Max Ritvo throughout the end of his life. This quietly devastating “book of friendship,” as the text is subtitled in its first edition, both flies and lives in the body as Ruhl and Ritvo talk about soup, the afterlife, chemotherapy, and poems—all within breaths and pages of one another. If you already love Ritvo’s poetry, as I do, this book lends a new degree of intimacy and a greater perspective on the aesthetic metaphysics at work in his poems. More than that, though, Letters from Max performs many kinds of important work. It joins the great tradition of writers’ correspondence with one another, of which Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Laynie Browne’s collaborative work with Bernadette Mayer are just a couple examples. It is a text concerned, like Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions, with matters of spirituality and the body’s existence on earth. And it is a portrait of a friendship over multiple years, as instructive to us as readers as Ritvo and Ruhl were and are to each other. Its beauty is in the gift of both pain and solace that it offers.
As a curated collection, Letters from Max is hybrid in its mixture of poems, letters, and contextual framing provided by Ruhl. Ritvo’s lyric poems are powerful in isolation, of course, but in the context of the other texts assembled here, they become more clearly part of an ongoing conversation. Almost like haibun, the book’s shifts from prose (often detailing Ritvo’s bodily pain) to poems create sharp contrasts and connections between mundane time and lyric time, allowing these spaces to all exist at once with new poignancy and perspective. As a result, the book’s reuse of some of Ritvo’s poems from Four Reincarnations creates a wholly different kind of text. And, in many ways, the grounded humor and vulnerability of the letter framing only sharpens the power of the power. While completing Four Reincarnations, for example, Ritvo sends a poem called “Hospice” (later to become “Living It Up”) to Ruhl, with only a short introductory note: “Tell me what you think.” Ruhl’s one-word response, “BEAUTIFUL,” is perfect in how human and mundane and honest it is in relation to the timeless lyric quality of the preceding poem. We don’t usually get to see the response to a poem directly on the page; poems often exist in a kind of ellipsis, artifacts we return to time and time again to have an emotional response. The inclusion of Ruhl’s reaction is a surprise and delight because it makes that emotional reaction a text itself, offering the gift of the response directly on the page and creating something new in the process. If much of literary history is a call-and-response between writers already, then Ritvo and Ruhl’s replies to one another are all the more rewarding to read because of how openly emotive they are (even in the midst of their deft, difficult wrangling with spirituality and metaphysics).
Indeed, as hybrid forms like haibun illuminate, part of the pleasure of reading poetry and prose together are the dimensionalities of the human they reveal in their interplay, separate from the power they have individually. The result in Letters from Max is a delightful, sad stitching of lyric time and linear time, the human and the beyond-the-human that, as a curated whole, evokes the wrestling people do with questions of existence and embodiment—in both transcendence and frustration. These are the elements that make Letters from Max appealing to an audience beyond readers who already love Ruhl or Ritvo, or who have experienced struggles with devastating illnesses like cancer. Late in the book, Ruhl asks of Ritvo, “But might we still have his listening? And in having his listening, experience again, when we need it, his wide love?” Letters from Max teaches us, again and again, the importance of listening, of reading people like texts and texts like people. Ruhl and Ritvo’s texts—plays, poems, letters, messages—inspire one another in a generative loop that creates a book to thereby inspire us, to offer us more ways to listen.
And the poems? Of course the poems are beautiful. Ritvo’s images continue to stun, as they do in this reprint of “Hi, Melissa”: “When I kiss your ankle I am silencing an oracle. / The oracle speaks from the hill of your ankle.” And Ruhl’s play excerpts and poems are also lovely: “I wanted music yes / but I also wanted the music / of every day things” she writes in an untitled poem in a May 27 letter to Ritvo, early in their correspondence. The book also offers a portrait of two highly playful, highly intelligent minds learning from one another. This is not only lovely on its own; it is also a good discussion of craft and aesthetics for writers, much like Rilke’s Letters. Ruhl’s advice to Ritvo, in a July 22 letter (in the 2012-2013 section of the book), to not “worry if your poetry feels insulated or indulgent,” is always much-needed: “Only some small degree of emotional restraint keeps [poetry] from being indulgent, and some small degree of sharing it with others keeps it from being insulated.” And Ritvo’s process, of “stripping away everything that’s not remarkable. A kind of robust minimalism,” as he notes in a July 21 letter, is not only an exciting snapshot of his work, but also a useful way for young writers to consider their own revision processes.
Ultimately, the pleasures of this book—its questions of literary work, of consciousness, of suffering—make it a welcome addition to the tradition of conversations between poets. In her poem “Lunch with Max on the Upper East Side,” in a September 12 letter, Ruhl writes, “Health does not belong to literature. / I wish it did,” closing a few lines later with “We all become poems / in the end.” In Letters from Max, we are reminded of the way that literature cannot hold the body and cannot, truly, make things happen; it cannot be a place of health and morality—it is too wild and strange and superhuman and amoral a place. And yet the body, paradoxically, can become a text. We can become poems, a metaphysics Ruhl and Ritvo seem to prove. Reading this book reminded me of the digital and in-person conversations I’ve had with so many mentors and fellow writers over the years—relationships where each of us became teacher and student, and talks, which closed with us somehow having a slightly better understanding (if such a thing is possible) of why we write in the first place. Letters from Max does so much important and human work that speaks for the friendships in our lives. Friendships, like people, that change into poems, that offer us a generous listening again and again, devastating us into joy.
Kelly Weber holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. She is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, upstreet, Mud City Journal, Bodega, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journal Award, and she has received professional support from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference workshop. She has also served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review and as an artist-in-residence at Cedar Point Biological Station. She lives in Colorado, where she enjoys exploring the outdoors. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.