Honey Talks About Ina Coolbrith

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July 1, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom

My older grandson Ethan always wants to go to Chinatown in San Francisco. I insist we take a long time to get to Chinatown because, once there, my interest in our adventure wanes.

In Chinatown stores, he examines cellophane wrapped packages of exploding cigars, Mao’s Little Red Book, mechanical masturbating orangutans, caps that blow up in the street, porcelain ash trays formed in the shape of copulating couples, and playing cards with images of naked women. None of the store clerks will sell him any of these things although I can’t imagine who would want these items except for eleven-year-old boys. Once, he came away with a midnight blue silk smoking jacket. I gave in and got him a battery-operated cigar to go with the jacket “but that was in exchange for his not asking me how many times in my life I had had sex” and he walked insouciantly down Grant Avenue in his smoking jacket smoking his pretend cigar.

On one excursion, we rode a cable car past Chinatown, and then he ran up and down hills on a beautiful windy day trying to find Chinatown but I wouldn’t tell him where it was and so he had to wait for me on quite a few hilltops while I admired the view of the San Francisco Bay. I steered him past Taylor Street but did not then, nor have I since, gotten him to Ina Coolbrith Park, with its icon of the poet that looks like a chimpanzee in a Victorian dress.

We moved rapidly downhill on Broadway. He smelled Chinese food in the wind and followed the scent.

I said, “Ina Coolbrith lived in that house. Do you see that house? Will you buy me that house when you are grown up? Members of the Bohemian Club bought it for her after she lost her house in the Great Earthquake. She was one of two women allowed to be members of the Bohemian Club — when real artists and writers belonged to it rather than the heads of multi-national corporations who belong to it now. She lived in a tent with her two white Persian cats, and she wore a white mantilla and her hair was white. She became California’s first Poet Laureate in 1917. I want to live in her house.”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “A scout already saw me play baseball. He comes every year to watch me, although I may be a great artist instead, or a L.A. City cop.”

“Not,” I said, “a cop. You kill innocent people on violent video games. I won’t let you be a cop. I’ll tell. I also won’t let you enter the armed services.”

He spotted a German tourist.

I ran after my grandson, rapidly reciting part of Coolbrith’s poem from “On Russian Hill,”

“Night and the hill to me!
Silence no sound that jars;
Above, of stars a sea;
Below, a sea of stars!
“Tranced in slumber’s sway,
The city at its feet.
A tang of salty spray
Blends with the odors sweet

“From garden-close and wall,
Where the madrona stood,
And tangled chaparral,
In the old solitude.

“Here, from the Long Ago,
Rezanov’s sailors sleep;
There, the Presidio;
Beyond, the plumed steep;

“The waters, mile on mile,
Foam-fringed with feathery white;
The beaconed fortress isle,
And Yerba Buena’s light.”

Ethan approached the young German and politely said, “Where’s Chinatown?”

The young man looked up at the towering child and said he thought it was at the end of the stairs, and so we went to Chinatown again, which is grandma-hell, and then to North Beach for lunch.

Ethan ate something with chicken in it. He always eats chicken except when he eats dessert. He doesn’t usually eat dessert because it doesn’t have chicken in it.

Once, I went with him to Disneyland and he ran pell-mell for fourteen hours, his running punctuated by waits in lines and a few minutes spent on terrifying rides, one of which “California Screamin’ — involves going upside down inside the silhouette of a mouse. At dinner that night, he ate chicken and almost got to the dessert but he abruptly fell asleep with his face in chocolate cake.

“Ina Coolbrith,” I said, as he ate chicken in the North Beach restaurant, “was the first white child to cross Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Mountains.

“She didn’t know how to read or write until her family reached Los Angeles and she went to school for the first time. ” Ethan’s Shrek-like ears creaked in their sockets signaling interest. He’s dyslexic. He goes to a school in Oakland for students with learning disabilities. None of them can tell time. None of them can tie their shoelaces. They are all deep thinkers.

“How old was she?”


“The Los Angeles Star/Estrella published her first poem when she was fifteen. She, like all Los Angeles children, spoke English and Spanish. The newspaper journalists wrote in English and Spanish. She was a beautiful girl. She danced the fandango, and she played the guitar. At Christmas, she walked in a long procession with the Los Feliz family.

“Los Angeles then did not look like the city looks now. The people built low buildings made of adobe, surrounded by farms and orchards and natural land. Cows and sheep and goats grazed on the hills.”

“Were there chickens?”


“When she was old, she wrote, sitting in the window of the house I want you to buy for me, about the year she was a seventeen year old married woman living in the Mexican city of Los Angeles:

“We roamed through fruited avenues of odorous limes,
of citron and banana ” where the air seemed swooning
with its weight of rifled sweets ” or down the spectral
glen where the black stream over jagged gashes of gray
rocks whirled shriekingly.

“Long, crimson blossoms of pomegranate boughs swung
censor-like above us, and we saw afar in the dim south
the long castellated rocks piercing the silver-veined tissues
of the night. We caught blue glimpses of the hills beyond
and like a diamond set in the cleft art of an emerald, the
tiny lake shone out its unshadowed crystal miroring a
sky aflame with stars. We heard the low soft plashing
of the waves against the shore and caught snow-gleamings
of an odorous weight of milk-white lilies, stirred by
the slow tide.”

We took the BART back to the Concord station, and Ethan sat opposite me. A chintz covered immense woman’s butt hung over me. I wondered if her butt was so vast she no feeling in it because the butt touched me from time to time. It was as if a floral couch intervened in things. Perhaps the butt could not move like ordinary flesh. It occupied the entire space between Ethan and me, and it should have at least flinched.

When the car emptied a bit, Ethan hung from a metal bar and swung back and forth.

“She was the first librarian in Oakland’s first free library. When the writer Jack London was a little boy, only five years old, she helped him choose books. In 1906, after the earthquake, he wrote to her “˜No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so noble as you.’ We debouched from the train.

Ethan sat at the computer as soon as we got to his house and typed in a few words and said, “Look, Grandma,” and he showed me a film of Market Street a few days before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, shot from the top of a trolley, which showed bicyclists and horse-drawn carts and bulky Imperialist buildings. Then he pulled up a YouTube film of the same street the day after the earthquake, and the film showed smoky, silent ruins.

See, Ina Coolbrith: Librarian and Laureate, by Josephine DeWitt Rhodehamal, Brigham Young University Press, 1973. Many of Coolbrith’s poems “but not all of them” can be read on-line at Poemhunter.com.



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