Susan Cohen

Robert Eastwood

Aleta George

Jannie M. Dresser

Connie Post

Susan Terris

Susan Terris 11/6/21

   

TWO ESSAYS— BY ALETA GEORGE

POETIC GESTURE

A California crown for Lord Byron

From CALIFORNIA magazine, Summer 2010

To view article, click on the link below:


 

Ina Coolbrith's Lost City of Love and Desire


(ICC member Aleta George is at work on a historical narrative
about Ina Coolbrith.)
  

 
Seconds before the 1906 earthquake hit, a pre-dawn light crept into Ina Donna Coolbrith’s parlor on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. A gilded photo album and a small vase rested on a wooden table rubbed hard with beeswax. Books grouped by height filled a four-tiered, doublewide bookshelf. A recently completed manuscript, ready for its publisher after nearly a decade of work, was stacked neatly inside of a small secretary desk.

Outside, a nervous horse neighed breaking the stillness of night. Then a crack, a jolt, and an explosion ripped through San Francisco, and for a long 45 seconds, streets buckled, bricks collapsed, metal groaned, and cracked plaster crashed into powdery blasts of dust.

Perhaps in the ten-second lull between tremors, Ina called out to her caretaker Josie Zeller or her tenant Robert Norman. But the shaking resumed and unnerved Ina and all of the city’s citizens for 30 seconds more.

In a sick bed for over a month with severe rheumatism, the 65-year-old poet could not walk more than a block or write a poem without resting. A month before the quake, the San Francisco Call reported that the “Gifted Poetess is Dangerously Ill and May Not Live.” An article the day before the quake said that she had been discharged from her part-time job at the Bohemian Club, and that her illness was “due in a large measure to worry over the loss of her position.” Ina couldn’t rely on the occasional book or poem sales, so her small paycheck from the Club helped her eke out an existence. When a fan once told her that his entire family lived on her poems, she replied: “That’s nice. It’s more than I’ve ever been able to do.”

At Ina’s house, she, Josie and Robert met in the parlor to find cracked plaster, chandeliers swaying, and Ina’s treasures scattered across the floor. With nothing but a shawl to cover her nightclothes, Ina hobbled to the street and looked down on the dimly lit city. On the waterfront, ship masts kept time with the passing quake like giant metronomes.

Across the bay in the Oakland Hills, after having been awakened by the jolt, the poet Joaquin Miller watched as wisps of smoke in San Francisco turned into fires. He was worried about his manuscripts stored at the Bohemian Club library, but he was also worried about Ina. 

A bond thicker than poetry connected Joaquin and Ina. In 1870 it was she who suggested he change his name from Cincunnatis Hiner Miller to Joaquin in honor of the bandit Joaquin Murietta. Ina also raised Miller’s half-Indian daughter, Calla Shasta, while he traveled around Europe brandishing himself a poet.

Several hours after the earthquake, Miller boarded a ferry for San Francisco to retrieve his manuscripts and to find Ina. But soldiers, patrolling the streets with shoot-to-kill orders from the mayor, blocked his way. 

With water lines snapped and useless, fires engulfed San Francisco, compelling a local editor to telegraph New York: “LOOKS LIKE THE END OF SAN FRANCISCO… GOD KNOWS WHEN IT WILL END.”

The following day soldiers evacuated Russian Hill, and Ina and Josie picked their way through San Francisco’s tangled streets, just two refugees among many. Certain that she would soon return to her home, Ina left empty-handed, except for carrying one of her two Angora cats. Josie carried the other. She walked away from row upon row of signed first-edition books, original paintings by California artist William Keith, a lifetime of letters from colleagues and a large scrapbook filled with press clippings about her and her poems.

But not even these treasures, if lost to the fires, would compare to the loss of the finished manuscript inside of her desk. Part history, part memoir, it included personal stories about her friends Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and John Muir. 

In 1862, Ina had moved to San Francisco at 21. Of her early San Francisco days she wrote, “In olden days, a child, I trod thy sands/ Thy sands unbuilded, rank with brush and briar/ And blossom—chased the sea-foam on thy strands/ Young city of my love and desire.” *

Within a few years, she was a pearl among her literary tribe. Starting with the first issue of the critically received Overland Monthly, she contributed a poem every month for a decade. Bret Harte, Ina’s mentor and the magazine’s editor, dubbed Ina the “sweetest singer in California.” 

After the publication of California’s first poetry anthology, Outcroppings, the New York Times wrote, “Miss Coolbrith is one of the real poets among the many poetic masqueraders in the volume.”

 In 1874 Ina’s sister died, leaving behind two orphaned children with no one but Ina to raise them. As the primary wage earner for her extended family, Ina took a full-time job as Oakland’s first public librarian, moving her niece, nephew, invalid mother and Calla Shasta to Oakland.

Working 12-hour days, six days a week, her muse suffocated under the weight of cataloguing, ordering, shelving, and checking out books. However, she did mentor thousands of young people, including several that would become famous in their own right, namely Jack London, Isadora Duncan and Mary Austin.

After 18 years of service, a vindictive board of directors fired her in 1892, and she moved back to her beloved Russian Hill.

***

Ina descended Russian Hill the day after the '06 earthquake and found a makeshift tent city at Fort Mason where in the scrub brush and sage women set up kitchens in the sand while men sat smoking on formal chairs dragged from their homes. Hastily packed suitcases and trunks, stacks of precious books, and rescued animals littered the ragtag camp. Billowing clouds of smoke and ash held San Francisco in a dome of stifling air that made breathing difficult, and for three nights, stiff and sick with rheumatism, Ina slept on the ground in the open. 

From Fort Mason she watched monstrous clouds growing above Russian Hill and knew that everything she owned would soon turn to dust. She wrote:
 
I saw thee in thine anguish tortured! Prone!
Rent with the earth-throes, garmented in fire!
Each wound upon thy breast upon my own,
Sad City of my grief and my desire.

Gray wind-blown ashes, broken, toppling wall
And ruined hearth—are these thy funeral pyre?
Black desolation covering as a pall—
Is this the end—my love and my desire? *

A week after the earthquake and fire, her tenant Robert Norman visited Ina where she was staying with a friend. Before Norman had evacuated the house, he grabbed all he could carry, including Ina’s letters and scrapbook. Many times she had shown him her scrapbook and prized letters tied in ribbons.

“What about my manuscript,” she asked, knowing that the finished manuscript was her only chance of immediate income.

But Norman didn’t think to grab it, and like so many other finished and unfinished works of art lost as a result of the earthquake, her manuscript helped to feed the great 1906 fire. 

Ina had known San Francisco in its early days when red fir planks covered the streets and the first six great fires ripped through its neighborhoods. She knew it during the dividing times of the Civil War, when California teetered between Confederate and Union loyalties, and saw it draped in black after President Lincoln’s assassination. She knew the city in flush times and lean, witnessing its fall and recovery from several economic depressions. She’d seen San Francisco transform itself and knew it could be done again:

Thou wilt arise, invincible! Supreme!
The world to voice thy glory never tire;
And song, unborn, shall chant no nobler theme—
Great City of my faith and my desire.

But I will see thee ever as of old!
Thy wraith of pearl, wall, mineret and spire,
Framed in the mists that veil thy Gate of Gold—
Lost City of my love and my desire. *

Ina could transform herself too. She eventually built a new house on top of Russian Hill, and in 1915, when San Francisco showed the world its renewal at the Panama Pacific Exposition, Ina Coolbrith was crowned California’s first poet laureate, making her the first female poet laureate in the United States. The 74-year old poet accepted the honor, saying: “In a life of unremitting labor, time and opportunity have been denied. So my meager output of verse is the result of odd moments, and only done at all because so wholly a labor of love.”

Four years later Ina received a small trust fund from an old friend, and at 78 she took a train to New York where she rented a room and wrote poetry. For the next four years she split her time between the two coasts.

Before she had left for New York, a group of writers began meeting at the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco, naming their group the Ina Coolbrith Circle. When Ina returned to Berkeley she never missed a Sunday meeting until her death at 87-years-old.

To this day, the Ina Coolbrith Circle continues to meet once a month in Orinda to celebrate Ina’s legacy and nurture the poetry and history of California.



* The stanzas quoted in this essay are excerpted from Ina Coolbrith’s poem, “San Francisco: April 18, 1906,” published in Wings of Sunset, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929.