An Appreciation of Enid

by Susan Stewart

Enid left her books, sacred to me, and a battered tin watering can that she insisted I take for my garden when she and Gene moved into their Philadelphia loft: the books are perfect masterpieces, the watering can imperfect reality. Enid thought both realms were worth pursuing, along with a generous hand in the kitchen, in a universe that is mostly absurdly surreal.

When I re-read our correspondence over the past ten years, it is with the joy of realizing all over again how lucky I was to know her and, even more, to have had a period of intense collaboration with her on our book, The Elements, and then more conversations around her Ars Botanica and, later, The Inconstant Moon.

I met Enid's work before I met Enid; Eleanor Wilner had a copy of Precessional, their 1998 book, on her dining room table one day when I was visiting. Although I had seen many artist's books over the years, I had never seen such a beautiful and considered contemporary example of one. Most exciting was to see how their work together unfolded – poems, images, and the form of the book had all the majesty of the celestial forms that were its focus.

Two years later Enid invited me to work with her on a new book that eventually became The Elements. From her initial suggestion that we "work horizontally" – that is, on horizontal pages – in any size we wanted to her final deliberations about boxing the copies in linen, she offered an artistic freedom that we poets, with our eight-and-a half by eleven inch field, our standard- sized book pages, and ordinary repertoire of papers and fonts, so rarely have.

Working with Enid made the inanimate parts of writing become animate; writing was all the closer to thinking because of the ways she envisioned the coherence and relation between words and print and paper and binding. There were so few limits and so much precision.

Much of that time comes back to me in scenes: the early meetings when we talked about walls and clouds and textures and then, one day, seemed to realize at the same moment that we might choose the elements as our theme; the day Enid showed me her sublime images of water and then let me know they were photographs of her bathtub; the giddy moment when we realized that the printer, like Blake's God, could throw down asterisks to land anywhere on the page and then impress them there.

When Enid was making her Ars Botanica she stopped photographing flowers and simply put the flowers themselves under the scanner. If she could have put the stars and moon under the scanner, she would have done that, too. And then found the perfect binding and sent the books out to the public vaults. Her books will be there generations from now, and future readers will think, mistakenly, that our age had the intelligence and patience that was Enid's.

Susan Stewart

[Note: The following lines are extracted from a note Susan wrote to my father shortly after the funeral. -Peter]

... Knowing Enid has been one of the great gifts of my adult life; I can't begin to say how much I learned from her, how much I enjoyed her company, and how much I miss her. I remember vividly the day we first met at the rare book room at Penn. I already had seen the beautiful first book she made with Eleanor on Eleanor's dining room table a few days after it arrived; in hushed voices, Eleanor and I marveled at each page. So when Enid mentioned that day at Penn that she'd like to work on something together, I was thrilled. There were many moments of being thrilled after that, from the private moments when our book arrived to the fun we all shared at the exhibits of Enid's work in recent years. I'll always remember the joy on both of your faces when you had moved to your new loft, the Ars Botanica was piled up in boxes and mailers in the hallway, and the elevator itself seemed to run on the excitement sparking from your floor of the building.

But the spark that meant the most to me was the day Enid and I first met at your house in Wallingford and we were mulling over ideas; when I said I wanted to write about the elements, Enid immediately got it – and she seemed immediately to get down to work. She was ready to make the dawning of the earth's waters from the circling pools of her bathwater; she could create a maelstrom with a match; she knew of a Japanese paper that had airy nothings in it; and she somehow made an ordinary local field have the vastness of the steppes. She knew how to encourage the printer to throw down some asterisks and – voila! – fireworks. All this in the calmest, most methodical, way of working I've ever seen. Enid showed me the big page and it has stayed with me since.

I have been teaching Enid's classmate Plath this week and have been reflecting on their, in some ways, parallel beginnings, and the different paths their lives took. Comparisons have their own faulty logic, but it is Enid whom I admire most, whose sanity is what makes an enduring art that comes from patient attention, collaboration, and care for others. And of course Enid had the good fortune to have your love, support, and deep interest – all a bed-rock for her invention ...