Sarah Ruhl’s mother was the first to explain that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian term “quaranta giorni”, which means forty days. “Forty days for ships to stay in ports so they don’t infect the city,” says the much-loved artist in the afterword to her new collection, Quarantine Love Poems. Day forty-one of the Covid-19 isolation came so she continued to write poetry. What began as a part-pandemic coping mechanism, part-academic practice with her young son has evolved into more than 150 lush pages of poetic musings.
Quarantine Love Poems is assembled in three sections, a structure reminiscent of the medium through which most people learned Ruhl’s name: theatre. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, she also has a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a Tony Award nomination, and a slew of theater productions (Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, and even opera) to her credit. Yet no new plays were written during the hiatus, mostly out of a sense of melancholy that the theater, as she always knew and loved it, was not happening. Stanzas, rather than scenes, piled up on Ruhl’s page and before she knew it, a book stared at her. One who argues that the right story can be told just as well in a haiku as in an hour-long opera, especially when that story is being lived by millions of Americans at once.
The first part of the volume is entitled “the first days of quarantine”. It explores the particularly mundane times of early 2020. As a non-essential worker, household chores that were once stuffed into weekend corner pockets have become the only full-day mission. In fact, folding laundry is the subject of the book’s opening poem:
We forgot for a while
this big blanket
is too hard to hold by a chin
and two hands to fold alone—
that there is more beauty
in the march towards the fold,
and in shared work.
The simple task of folding clothes is imposed in a reflection on building community. It happens over and over again in the collection – moments with a dog, a spider, an omelet turn into contemplative questions. “I always turn to poetry in difficult times,” Ruhl told Observer. “There is a quiet interiority, a feeling of slowing down time, a feeling of breath and a bit of tenderness, I think. Our hearts were so tender during the pandemic because it was such a scary time. Poetry can calm this. Reading poems was as important a part of the gift of this calm as writing them. Everyone from feminist champions Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich to contemporaries Jericho Brown and Ada Limón regularly appeared on her list.
Structurally, Ruhl’s poems vary in number of stanzas and syllables, but tonally they match the same soft, inquisitive voice she uses in our Zoom interview. This softness, however, should not be mistaken for weakness – his words still pack a punch. This is a trick the collection plays well on its readers; while part one takes a microscope to the underling, part two (“poems written after May 25, the day George Floyd was murdered”) reveals how those little moments in life can actually carry a heavy load and harmful. From a less than heartwarming comment from Ruhl’s grandmother about going to prom with the only black boy in the neighborhood to the deceptively “innocent” harassment of a white lady at a theater night about the dark skin of her half-Thai husband, the second chapter is sobering. It exposes a connection between the micro-aggressive moments of discrimination that fuel the overtly violent, knee-to-neck moments.
“What I was thinking really changed after the murder of George Floyd. That’s probably true for a lot of people. And I guess I felt like, as a white writer, it was time to ‘consider my whiteness in my handwriting, you know, and no only write on the laundry…I’m married to a biracial man, and we’re a multiracial family. I don’t think I’ve really touched on this in my writing before. She confesses. In the poem “Separating the Laundry, June 6,” Ruhl revisits the task:
I separate the white linen from the colors.
I pour in bleach to make “my whites whiter”.
Yesterday Breonna Taylor celebrated her birthday
only she was dead.
And yesterday Donald Trump said what a great
day was for George Floyd
only George Floyd was dead.
And I pour a capful of bleach,
the same bleach that Donald Trump advised
to drink so as not to catch the plague.
And I contemplate the rage.
And think of my white skin during
I do my laundry.
The separation of colors and whites, the strict incorporation of bleach, all echo a darker sentiment that pervades American society, politics and race relations.
The last chapter of the book, “haiku, tanka and senryū in quarantine”, is then divided into the seasons of the year. When I ask Ruhl, an avowed “haiku zealot,” about this breakdown she shares, “What interests me in form is the accumulation; they are like a book of days. There’s something about a haiku that says, live this moment, then this moment, then the next, like little stepping stones. Haiku, tanka and senryū are ancient short forms of Japanese poetry marked by their number of syllables and lines, as well as an ability to distill the wonders and perils of nature, both earthly and human, into a few words. Over the past two years, there has been a plethora of wonders and perils to choose from. These forms are a therapeutic practice for Ruhl, alongside meditation which she has also practiced regularly throughout the lockdown through virtual workshops hosted by the Zen Center in New York. “I learned a meditation practice from one of my teachers where you inhale for five, exhale for seven, then inhale again for five. And I suddenly realized, oh my God, this is a form of haiku!You inhale for five years, exhale for seven years, inhale for five years, and then it’s almost as if the missing line that was off for seven years is an exhale that belongs fully to the reader.
Rhythming his words to the rhythm of his breathing came naturally to him. It structured the task at hand and calmed his thoughts. When I ask her about the healing power of this work, she shares “meditation, haiku writing and reading, they could be prescribed” with a tender laugh. When I ask what singular offering of Love poems… would be the first on doctor’s orders, there is no answer. “I find it difficult to choose one to say: Oh, that! This poem will help you because that’s what quarantine was like! When in fact, it was so many little moments, right? ” Right. The poem about the husband fixing the tape dispenser, the poem about the trio of kids playing violins out of tune on Zoom, the poem about a young son discovering a faulty purple vibrator (a particularly funny treat for those familiar with the piece from Ruhl, Into the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)— they all do the spooky and confusing justice of the time.
Acknowledgments tend to be one of the most revealing parts of any reading. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the specific conditions that allowed a book to be. It is therefore normal that the list of people receiving gratitude from Ruhl provides the same things we all needed to survive a global pandemic: shelter, meditation, time and, of course, love. As we end our conversation, I ask Ruhl what is the purpose of poetry in the midst of madness. Without hesitation, she replies, “poetry invites us to remember that we have souls. In that case, publishing a book might restore some of them.