Sarah Ruhl’s mother was the first to explain that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian term “quaranta giorni,” meaning forty days. “Forty days for ships to sit in ports so they would not infect the city,” the highly lauded artist explains in the afterword of her new collection, Love Poems in Quarantine. Day forty-one of 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 evolved into more than 150 lush pages of poetic musings.
Love Poems in Quarantine is assembled into three sections, a structure that feels reminiscent of the medium most folks came to learn Ruhl’s name by: theater. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, she also happens to have a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Tony Award nomination, and a bounty of theatrical productions (Broadway, off Broadway, regional, and even opera) under her belt. Still, no new plays were written during the pause, mostly out of a sense of melancholy that 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 back at her. One that makes the case that the right story can be told just as well in a haiku than in an hours-long opera, especially when that story is being experienced by millions of Americans at once.
Part one of the volume is titled “early days of quarantine.” It probes into the particularly mundane moments of early 2020. As a non-essential worker, domestic chores that were previously shoved into the corner pockets of the weekend became an entire day’s sole mission. In fact, folding laundry is the subject of the book’s inaugural poem:
We forgot for a while
that one large blanket
is too difficult for one chin to hold
and two hands to fold alone—
that there is more beauty
in the walking toward the fold,
and in the shared labor.
The simple task of folding clothes is levied into a reflection on building community. It happens over and over again in the collection—moments with a dog, a spider, an omelette morphs into contemplative queries. “I always turn to poetry in hard times,” Ruhl tells Observer. “There’s a quiet interiority, a sense of slowing down time, a sense of breath, and a little sense of tenderness, I think. Our hearts were so tender during the pandemic, because it was such a frightening time. Poetry can calm that.” Reading poems had just as large a hand in gifting that calm as writing them did. Everyone from feminist champions Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich to contemporaries Jericho Brown and Ada Limón were regulars on her list.
Structurally, Ruhl’s poems vary in stanza and syllable count, but tonally, they fall in line with the same gentle, inquisitive voice she uses in our interview on Zoom. This softness, however, should not be confused for weakness—her words still pack a punch. It’s a trick the collection plays on its readers well; while part one takes a microscope to the menial, part two (“poems written after May 25, the day George Floyd was murdered”) reveals how those small moments of life can actually carry a heavy and harmful load. From a less than heartwarming comment from Ruhl’s grandmother about going to prom with the only Black boy in the neighborhood to deceptively “innocent” badgering from a white lady at a theater party about her half-Thai husband’s dark skin, the second chapter is sobering. It exposes a link between the micro-aggressive moments of discrimination that fuel the overtly violent, knee-on-neck ones.
“What I was thinking about really changed after George Floyd was murdered. That’s probably true for a lot of people. And I guess I felt like, as a white writer, it felt like time to examine my whiteness in my writing, you know, and not only be writing about laundry…I’m married to a biracial man, and we’re a multiracial family. I don’t think I’ve really addressed that anywhere in my writing before,” she confesses. In the poem “Separating the laundry, June 6,” Ruhl revisits the task:
I separate white laundry from colors.
I pour in bleach to make “my whites whiter.”
Yesterday Breonna Taylor had her birthday
only she was dead.
And yesterday Donald Trump said what a great
day it was for George Floyd
only George Floyd was dead.
And I pour in a capful of bleach,
the same bleach Donald Trump advised
us to drink so we don’t get the plague.
And I contemplate rage.
And think about my white skin while
I do my laundry.
The separation of colors and whites, the stringent incorporation of bleach—it all echoes a darker sentiment pervading American society, politics, and race relations.
The book’s final chapter, “haiku, tanka, and senryū in quarantine,” is further broken down into seasons of the year. When I ask Ruhl, a self-confessed ”haiku zealot” about this breakdown she shares, “What interests me about the form is cumulation; they’re like a book of days. There’s something about a haiku that says, live in 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 syllable and line count, as well as an ability to distill the wonders and perils of nature, both Earthly and human, into a few words. Over the course of the past two years, there has been a plethora of wonder and peril to choose from. These forms are a therapeutic practice for Ruhl, right alongside meditation which she also performed routinely throughout lockdown thanks to virtual workshops held by New York City’s Zen Center. “I learned a meditation practice from a teacher of mine where you breathe in for five, breathe out for seven, then breathe in for five again. And I suddenly realized, oh my God, that’s a haiku form! You breathe in for five, out for seven, in for five, and then it’s almost like the missing line that’s out for seven is an exhale that fully belongs to the reader.”
Pacing words with the rhythm of her breath came naturally. It structured the task at hand and balmed her thoughts. When I ask about the healing power of this work, she shares “meditation, writing a haiku, and reading, they could be prescribed” with a tender laugh. When I ask which singular offering from Love Poems… would be first on the doctor’s orders, there is no answer. “I find it hard to pick one to say: Oh, this! This poem will help you because this was what quarantine was like! When actually, it was so many little moments, right?” Right. The poem about the husband who fixes the tape dispenser, the poem about the trio of children playing violin out of tune on Zoom, the poem about a young son discovering a malfunctioning purple vibrator (a particularly funny treat for those familiar with Ruhl’s play, In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)—they all do the scary, puzzling time justice.
Acknowledgments tend to be one of the most revealing parts of any read. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the specific conditions that allowed for a book to be. It’s fitting, then, that the list of people on the receiving end of Ruhl’s gratitude provided the same things that we all needed to survive a global pandemic: shelter, meditation, time, and, of course, love. As we close out our conversation, I ask Ruhl about the purpose of poetry amidst the madness. Without hesitation, she responds, “poetry invites us to remember that we have souls.” In this case, publishing a book of it might just restore some.