Judith and I shared an October 14 birthday. We met when a mutual friend threw a party for us both, 30 years ago. I was freshly graduated from a state teachers' college, where I had managed to avoid any meaningful encounters with literacy. She was married, raising her two teenaged daughters and a stepson, and going stir-crazy in a quiet, dusty town in eastern Washington. Her tone, that first evening, was conspiratorial. We sat in a corner and gossiped, venomously, about everyone else in the room. By the end of the evening we decided we had been separated, somehow, at birth. Three months later, I went to visit her and her husband and family for a weekend and remained, in a spare room off the kitchen, for five years.
Judith's influence began that first evening, when she gave me Michael Holroyd's two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey. She was reading her way through all of the letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf at the time. The notion of an elect group of like-minded artists, writers, and thinkers all living and working in close society was a heady new concept to someone raised in a red-necked logging town on the Washington coast. I was instantly swept up in Judith's enthusiasm and curiosity about the complex lives and loves of the Bloomsbury group.
To speak with Judith about a book was to learn the context in which the book was written -- what the author was up to at the time, who the author's influences were, what had been said to whom, and when, that led the author to write what he did. Judith's reading of text was intimate. Her ability to recall and connect details and, from them, to construct a rich criticism was something I have yet to experience with anyone else in casual conversation.
Poetry had always seemed beyond my powers of comprehension and outside my sphere of interest. No one could remain aloof, though, on hearing Judith read. She would deepen her voice, soften and elongate her vowels, and breathe life into any poem, from Emily Dickinson ("The soul selects her own society,/ Then shuts the door./ On her divine majority/ Obtrude no more") to Robert Penn Warren ("God's goose, neck neatly wrung, is being plucked") to T.S. Eliot ("Lady of silences/ Calm and distressed/ Torn and most whole/ Rose of memory/ Rose of forgetfulness"). One of the most useful pieces of advice she gave me was to read poetry for a half hour before setting down to write.
When it came to a new author or a new poem, or even a new translation of a classic, such as David Ferry's Georgics of Virgil, Judith's excitement neared campaign status. Friends received copies from Amazon. She talked about it via e-mail or brought the book along to lunch in order to share snippets between courses. Then, in the evening after supper, she'd sit on her couch, with Lily the dachshund ever in attendance, and read whole chapters to her guests. And interspersed throughout the reading, gossip, even about Homer.