Where Learned Poems, Loved Books and Lost Friends Live

by Julie Riddle

I miss Laura Bloxham. She died in November 2019, and even though she had coped with significant health issues for years, her death was still unexpected. After she had become homebound, I would visit her every few weeks. Our wide-ranging discussions would always include books: what we were reading and planned to read, books we thought the other would like, books we had high hopes for but that didn’t quite hold up.

Since Laura’s death I have grieved her absence and think of her often. I’ve found myself eager to tell her about a new book I’ve discovered, and then realize I can’t. After the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. and Washington state residents were ordered to stay home, I have thought of Laura even more. I want to talk with her about what is happening. I want to hear her considered insights and opinions, her musings that had a way of lightly imparting a wise perspective and reassurance. 

Laura had been a longtime professor of English at Whitworth University, where I took Reading Lit from her the first semester of my freshman year, way back in 1988. One of her class assignments was to select a poem and memorize it. A memorized poem, she said, would stay with us through our lives, providing comfort in hard times. Not only did we have to memorize the poem’s words, but we had to memorize its exact punctuation and write the poem as an in-class test. 

I chose to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The poem transported me to a pond in the Montana woods where I grew up. I skated on the pond during late winter afternoons, enjoying quietude and solitude, the frozen silence creating a sense of melancholy that matched my internal melancholy. All of these elements – quietude, solitude, melancholy – reside, for me, in Frost’s poem. 

Just as Laura predicted, “Stopping by Woods” has provided comfort in hard times across the 32 years since I memorized it. The poem has come through again during the distressing upheaval of this pandemic; it even provided a moment of delight for my family during a dinnertime discussion when, at my husband’s prompting, I recited it for them.

Frost is not known for writing highbrow poems, and Laura read much more than just highbrow books. The last book she recommended to me before she died was Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast. I put off getting the book because I knew there would be no more of Laura’s recommendations to look forward to. But just before the stay-home order was issued, I bought a copy online after a library search came up empty. The book, which a Publishers Weekly review describes as a quiet charmer and a bibliophile’s delight, is about eccentric fraternal twins who operate a B&B where people like them, the “gentle and bookish and ever so slightly confused,” can feel at home. 

I put off reading Bachelor Brothers for the same reason I had put off ordering it. But then, several weeks into the required staycation, I opened the slim book and began to read. The novel truly is a bibliophile’s delight (and a reader’s delight). The following passage, where one of the brothers muses about memorizing poetry, brought Laura and her poetry assignment to mind:

I love the phrase ‘learning by heart,’ especially when it is applied to poetry, because it seems such a perfect description of the process of memorizing words that have been carefully chosen and weighed and handled. The heart, I think, which is the home of all things rhythmic, is where learned poems go to live. Over time and repeated use, they are folded into one’s being, are absorbed by the blood, and feed the rest of the mechanism: more subtle than oxygen, but as vital, in their way. Memorized poems become part of the whole, like reflexes. They surface as they’re required.

In hard times, especially during this unprecedented pandemic, reciting memorized poems and scripture has provided solace and respite, as has reading all kinds of books. The physical presence of books feels to me like a hug, and when those books are about books, like Laura’s Bachelor Brothers, well, that’s a hug and a mental escape I’ll embrace anytime. 

Here are a few books about books that are on my shelf and that you might enjoy:

Each May for 43 years, Laura produced a recommended reading list. To my great surprise and delight, Laura’s 2019 Reading List, her last, included a book I had recommended to her; it had even earned her rare “All-Star Team” designation. 

A while ago I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel by Amor Towles that had also made Laura’s 2019 all-star category. But about a quarter of the way in, I gave up. The plot was too slow, too meditative. I confessed this to Laura during a visit, and she bore the news politely. But a few weeks later she sent me a text, insisting I give the book another try. I was surprised by the text’s urgent tone – what did she find in this book that I had missed?

On her recommended reading list, Laura’s description of A Gentleman in Moscow states, “House arrest in a grand hotel leads a man into imagination, loves on many levels, and purpose.” I do not live in a grand hotel, but sheltering at home during a pandemic does have the feel of what house arrest might be like. I find myself wanting to give the book another try, not just for how I might relate differently to the story now, but also because this book is actually the very last one Laura recommended to me. I will try again, will read the book through, and will look for her in its pages.

Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling and the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior development writer at Whitworth University and as editor of Whitworth Today magazine. She is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). 

2 thoughts on “Where Learned Poems, Loved Books and Lost Friends Live

  1. When I was hospitalized after an unprovoked, freak health crisis, exhausted and sleepless, tethered to machines, I listened to the first several hours of A Gentleman in Moscow. During my seemingly endless two-year recovery, I listened again and again and again, the only story that could give me solace in a dark time. I finally had my fill just prior to our current crisis, but I carry Count Rostov with me. I’m convinced that the readings gave me the strength to face the pandemic with equanimity and hope.

    Thank you for the reading list, and I’m so sorry for the loss of your teacher and friend.

  2. Thank you, Nicole, for your lovely message and for sharing about your hospitalization and lengthy recovery. You’ve inspired me even more to return to A Gentleman in Moscow. I saw that the book is being made into a series for television. I plan to read the book before watching the series. I hope you are fully recovered now, and that you’re staying healthy and well in the midst of the pandemic. All my best to you!

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