Articles, Ideas & Discoveries

A SUITE FOR LOUISE: Twelve Remembrances

Two photographs by Young Suh

Table of Contents

Jacob Eigen
Jessica Fisher
Lisa Halliday
Brenda Hillman
Dana Levin
Sandra Lim
Robert Pinsky
D. A. Powell
Margaret Ronda
Margaret Ross
Noah Warren
Rosanna Warren

Preface by Katie Peterson

Louise loved correcting my grammar. “Because you went to Harvard,” she said, “it proves that the school is imperfect.” And yet, Cambridge and the people who lived there, permanent residents and transients, gave her a world with sustaining force. It was in Cambridge that she wrote Averno, and A Village Life, and Faithful and Virtuous Night, and the book of the end of a marriage and a life’s rebirth, Vita Nuova, which ends: “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. / Then I moved to Cambridge.”

I became friends with Louise over dinner in Cambridge restaurants. She made no secret of her mulish devotion to repetition and order; trying a new restaurant was mainly out of the question and dinners were for two people, maybe three if you were coupled up (though that wasn’t always preferable). And yet. I convinced Louise to come to Thanksgiving in Somerville with a group of my friends in 2011, none of whom she had known previously – and this she enjoyed so much she made those friends a part of her extended family. We even earned a stupid nickname, “the team.”

And yet. Years later, when Louise and I found ourselves in California at the same time during the odd days of the mid-pandemic when no one really knew who was following what rules, we made do, with Korean take-out in my front yard in freezing temperatures with a blazing fire in a trash bucket. And yet. Her fascination with her own willing adaptations to dining routines after the birth of her grandchildren became a new source of achievement. Louise convinced me that advertising your adherence to order, and ritual might do wonders for your productivity and happiness. I’m not sure her expansive life, documented here in the rich terms of friends, students, and admirers, could convince me that her spirit was rigid. Adamant, maybe.

As the days go by, I see Louise even more as someone with Thoreauvian – Emersonian – Cantabridgian – instincts, an antinomian in civilization’s clothing, a rebel, a cosmic naysayer, a consummate teacher who dissembled herself into acceptable surfaces to needle her lucky disciples further.

Couplet for Louise

Death, simply because we are speaking to each other
doesn’t mean you are my choreographer.

Photographer’s Note by Young Suh

When Louise started teaching at Stanford, Katie and I had just moved to the East Bay, and our dinner with Louise became a weekly ritual during the winter quarters. We would often go to the same Chinese restaurant, and occasionally I would have dinner with Louise alone when Katie was busy working. We were like a family, and I felt more and more like she was one of our parents insisting to schedule a regular dinner, and we obliged.

As I became more intimate with her, I felt I wanted to take a portrait of her. I was starting to become more invested in portrait photography as a medium and its power to impose a mysterious relationship between the photographer and the sitter. I started wondering what it would be like to photograph her. Would it tell me more about the mysterious feeling I had about my relationship with her outside our surrogate family bonding? I felt both extremely close to her, such that I could trust her with any of my opinions, and at the same time, I felt a respectful distance. She agreed to be photographed, but in her own way, she was also figuring out what it meant, and our busy schedule made it difficult to find a right time.

Then, her book Winter Recipes from the Collective was about to be published, and she asked me if I wanted to take her author photo. It was the Spring of 2021, during the pandemic, when we finally agreed on a date. At the same time, I had news from Korea that my father was hospitalized and was not gaining consciousness. Despite the strict quarantine rules in Korea, I arranged to travel to be with him.

The photoshoot with Louise was scheduled three days before my flight to Korea. I met her in the most anxious state of mind. We spent 3-4 hours together, moving around her room to find good light. For those hours, it was just two of us: a photographer and a sitter. Sometimes I think a portrait session is the most humanistic relationship a photographer can have with someone. We both don’t know where we are going: the photographer is full of doubt about the photograph, the model is participating in the uncertainty. What happens is beyond the control of comprehensive mind. They dance together, and it’s over.

She didn’t choose any of the photographs, and the book was published without her photograph. I didn’t mind. I loved some of the photographs, but I somehow agreed that they may not work for her book. I am thinking of her looking at these photographs, that spring afternoon, we had many days like that when she was in California. It was one of those days.