April 18, 2014

Coolbrith's San Francisco: garmented in fire

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 began on April 18 shortly after 5 a.m. and lasted between 45 and 60 seconds, not including several aftershocks. Though its range was massive, it was labeled as a San Francisco phenomenon because of the massive fires it spawned there. Among the thousands affected was poet/librarian Ina Coolbrith, born Josephine Anne Smith, whose home was destroyed, along with all her possessions (including the manuscript for a tell-all book which is believed would have revealed her affairs with other California writers like Joaquin Miller and Bret Harte). Also among the items lost were some 3,000 books, including signed editions from her friends, as well as correspondence with literary figures like Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She was only able to save her pet cat.

Coolbrith's popularity in the California literary scene inspired several attempts to assist her financially. Twain offered autographed photographs of himself to sell, social clubs sponsored dinners or book sales in her honor, and some even pushed the state legislature to offer Coolbrith a pension. Years later, she was named the first poet laureate of California. The disaster somehow spurred Coolbrith to write more poetry than ever before. Among her lines from this period was a poem inspired by the earthquake and fire, "San Francisco — April 18, 1906":

In ended days, a child, I trod thy sands,
    The sands unbuilded rank with bush and brier
And blossom—chased the sea-foam on thy strands,
    Young city of my love and my desire!

I saw thy barren hills against the skies,
    I saw them topped with minaret and spire,
On plain and slope thy myriad walls arise,
    Fair city of my love and my desire!

With thee the Orient touched heart and hands:
    The world's rich argosies lay at thy feet;
Queen of the fairest land of all the lands—
    Our sunset-glory, proud and strong and sweet!

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 love 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?

But I —shall see thee ever as of old!
    Thy wraith of pearl, wall, minaret, and spire,
Framed in the mists that veil thy Gate of Gold,
    Lost city of my love and my desire!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.