Ariel: A Memoir

Ariel: A Memoir

Ariel Reynolds Parkinson—artist, stage and costume designer, and avid recycler—grew up in Piedmont and has lived in the North Berkeley hills for many decades. Now 86, Parkinson was a Cal student in the late 1940s when she joined a poetry circle that comprised members of the San Francisco Renaissance such as Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, and later the Beats (Allen Ginsberg was a particular friend). Her husband, U.C. Berkeley professor Thomas Parkinson, was also a poet and Yeats scholar. Parkinson went on to study art in Italy, gaining her own fame over the years as an artist while retaining her acumen as a sensitive and articulate wordsmith. (To view samples of her visual work, see Her memoir, now in the final stages of preparation for larger publication, is available at Berkeley’s Mythos Gallery (930 Dwight Way, #10). In the following excerpts, Parkinson writes humorously of her increasingly avant-garde life as a young college student, her courtship, and her wedding.

. . . “Grown up” and twenty, I was a serious student. My day began before seven a.m. with Untermeyer’s Modern Poetry propped up on the breakfast table in the pantry, between the kitchen and dining room. My mother usually drove me to campus from our flowering and forested acre at the edge of Piedmont where I’d grown up, and later she picked me up. She also typed my papers from dictation and ran the house completely. Poor recompense to all this luxury, solicitude, and help, I firmly rejected my parents’ periodic efforts to introduce me to eligible young doctors. Descending from my study immediately before dinner (no cocktail hour for me), I disappeared immediately afterward to rejoin my books, often to fall asleep at my desk over Hopkins, or Keats, C.S. Lewis or Virginia Woolf.

My only consistent recreational activity was The Poetry Reading, usually organized by Duncan in the East Bay or sometimes in San Francisco by Rexroth. I was the only one in our crowd who had access to an automobile: my mother’s, a slightly shabby brown Lincoln sedan. I would take the car and return well before midnight.

The readings were arduous and austere occasions. Each night one of the informal “company” performed. Much critical acumen, very vocal, very learned. Occasionally an Eloi would appear among the Morlocks—anyone from a lowly assistant in a language department to Professor Josephine Miles. The setting was most often ultimate drab, in low-ceilinged flats, basement rooms, with rented furniture, the air if not the fact of “underground.” But there was never any clutter, and the poets kept the lights mercifully low, in source and wattage, a décor which throws personality into high relief. More than half the participants sat on the floor in really cramped quarters or on the bed.

Sometimes a half gallon of Gallo red wine circulated, but I never saw anyone drink too much. We left as alert as when we arrived.

One morning, as I was engaged in a soft-boiled egg and Untermeyer, a hand holding a magazine with a small red oblong gash dramatically appeared around the edge of the pantry’s swinging door. “NEW CULT OF SEX AND ANARCHY,” proclaimed the oblong in large, black letters. Both parents—I had never seen them enter a room so close together—followed hard upon.

“What is that?” I inquired.

“Poetry readings,” said my father.

“Your friends,” interjected my mother. “Orgies,” she added dismally, “twice a week!”

“Orgies?” I was baffled. We agreed that I would read the article that Mildred Edy Brady, “economist and freelance writer living in Berkeley,” had written for Harper’s magazine, and then we’d talk some more.

It was not difficult to explain: The Big Sur bunch might well deserve Brady’s lurid description of “orgiastic sexual sacraments generating mysticism, egoism, surrealism, and anarchism,” and you could read all about it in Henry Miller’s novels (which I had not); however, the poetry readings of the northern wing observed an almost Quaker decorum.

Although Brady claimed to have “observed at close range” the groups of whom she wrote, no one I knew had ever met her or talked with her—except of course the omniscient Rexroth who never ever did not know anyone. Her exposé illustrated the danger of selectively taking published work—Henry Miller and Wilhelm Reich, for example—adding a site visit, and mixing well.

Soon after, my mother’s kindness not unmixed with curiosity, Laurel suggested a dinner. My new colleagues, also curious, willingly accepted.


. . . At the end of my years at Scripps I had experienced the highs and crashes of first love with a mathematical physicist with curly red hair and blazing blue eyes, resulting in my utter incapacity to handle any aspect of love competently. There followed sleep deprivation, withdrawal from agreeable social intercourse, wild mood swings, and longing that, like the other symptoms, interfered radically with the rest of life. Fortunately, my relationship with Tom was much more adult and soundly based on a common focus on culture, poetry, visual arts, and the glory of ideas.

On the other hand, I had observed ambitious young acolytes of the arts become wives and mothers, pouring their life energy into eight hours a day bussing dishes or typing business letters or monitoring children’s play.

I, too, was tempted by the seduction of being part of a household with at least one assured income so that I myself wouldn’t have to work full time for a wage. Instead, I could explore and produce what I felt I had an aptitude for, visual art. My hope was that the pleasures and security of a domestic household would also serve as a survival system that, with skill, tact, and effort, would be compatible with both partners’ dedicated work in the arts.

When I thought about Tom’s future, it looked promising, and I could see how I fit in. Thomas was in line to be the first U.C. Berkeley English department Ph.D. appointed to the faculty on a tenure track. He had already been a teaching assistant there for several years. He had become increasingly present in my home in Piedmont. Our household help Yoshi of the strawberry farms referred to him as Young Teach, as opposed to Ben Lehman, Old Teach. Glenn Hoover, ancient, diminutive Professor of Political Science, and so popular that, without campaigning, he was repeatedly re-elected Oakland City Councilman, cackled gleefully at a dinner party, “There’s a professor for you. His natural phrasing is the 50-minute hour!”

Stretched out, all six feet, eight inches, 200 pounds, on the big, built-in bed on the sleeping porch, Tom sighed luxuriously, “I feel like a Roman Emperor.” Yes. Stretched out on the living room couch during a Middle English lesson, he had waved toward the moon poised above the line of hills east of us. “Ah, the powerful symmetry of nature: the sun rising in the east, and setting in the west; the moon, rising in the west and setting in the east.” Well, no. Natural science was not his strong point. Almost everything else in Western Civilization was.

I rejoiced in his big, warm presence, all that lot of him. His perception of me reflected back was the one I needed, wanted. His dedication to art, truth, social justice, and the natural world all corresponded to mine. His knowledge and good mind helped life seem endlessly interesting. I loved his poetry, not just the few pieces occasioned by or addressed to me.

Yes, I wanted a life with Tom.

But I wanted to go to Europe on my own first.

When I told my godfather Ben Lehman that on my return from Europe I would marry Tom Parkinson, he gave me what was then unusual advice: “Why don’t you just live with him for a while?” To my astonishment, my mother said the same thing; both of them were intent upon my avoiding marriage to Tom. At least Ben commented, “Of course, the talk will be interesting.”

And it was. Maybe I also needed the security of Tom’s size, the reach of his understanding, his humongous laughter, and even what would become the emotional turbulence.

With his last $100 as a teaching assistant, Tom bought a piece of fine jade set in a gold ring at Gump’s. We were to be married in Piedmont on my return from Europe—which involved, among a few less important things, my returning.


. . . I had kept “il mio promesso” to Tom Parkinson and returned to a new household, a new vocation, and a new style, or at least partly conscious artistic orientation. The new vocation, painter; the style, bio-classicism. And, oh yes, a wedding, ours.

The wedding first, precipitously only two weeks away, on December 23, 1948, ceremoniously acknowledging in the minds of the assembled and in the law the following: Thomas (patrilineally son of the first president of the San Francisco Plumbers’ Union, heroically blacklisted after the general strike of 1934) and Ariel (patrilineally daughter of an exotic foundling shipped to the U.S. and kept there by well-bred Europeans, surgeon, war hero, president of everything) were married in front of the baronial fireplace of the surgeon’s home. The beamed living room was filled with professors, lawyers, doctors, a smattering of cousins, Tom’s siblings, my godparents, and the bustling purveyors of food and drink. Although Tom was but two months on the U.C. Berkeley faculty in the English department, it is still remarkable that he only invited a single colleague, Josephine Miles (the chair of Tom’s department, Ben Lehman, also being my godfather, attended on my behalf), and he invited one fellow poet, Richard Moore, Tom’s best friend and Best Man. Flouting our deep personal friendships with the Berkeley bunch, we invited no other poets since many were not the marrying type (being gay or devoutly single). Besides, I had been away from Berkeley for nearly a year. My most recent friendly relations with Piedmont youth had taken place in grammar school. The wedding ended up an almost purely family affair and a classy one at that.

We had a good time. I enjoyed the return of the elders, the ghostly presences of my childhood, now aged 60, 70, or 80, turned out to celebrate. The wedding animated everyone as they enjoyed the continuity with their own youth and the return, at least temporarily, of the lost and the strayed.

There were Dickensian moments. My mother’s mother, vigorous and portly, wore her sturdiest and largest corset, reinforced to carry at all times a cache of hundred dollar bills to pass on to her “mentally challenged” son at the Veterans Hospital in Vacaville. (I never knew why this uncle was seemingly deranged, but ashamed of him, my mother allowed my brother and me to see him only once at the house in Piedmont.) A wide satin ribbon in a floral pattern, brought from Paris and tied with a bow around my grandmother’s middle, enhanced the effect of her cash-stuffed corset.

My mother Laurel—also overly upholstered with an inadvertent extra slip—was excited by the throng. In reply to a question about her lecture tours, she declared she was going to “march in the month of Massachusetts,” instead of the reverse, “going to Massachusetts in the month of March,” where she would show her nature films.

My impish younger brother Gordon, aged twenty, was taking bets on how long the marriage between Tom and me would last. The immediate family’s estimate was three weeks, not disclosed until their return from Christmas at Guillemot Cove in Puget Sound (they left that evening). They were all wrong by half a century.

The excellent caterer, a brisk, stocky little Dane, a patient of my father, had to tell Bride and Groom it was time for them to go. Richard, Thomas, and Ariel (dressed now in the wine-silk wedding present) walked down the long driveway to a borrowed car. When Richard left us, suddenly it was hard for me to be reduced from a convivial legion to just two. We then dined together at the Cliff House, returned together to the ancient, wistful, rickety cottage that Tom was renting, with its vast neglected yard adjacent to the Santa Fe tracks. Yes, it shook when a train passed.

Thomas had filled the cottage with American Beauty roses, a hue I secretly object to. I concentrated on the symbolism. The next morning we found outside a packet of newly published Small Press poetry delivered by Ham and Mary Tyler, the only of our friends who had been invited but couldn’t attend the wedding (the social dynamic would have been more interesting). It was raining hard. Tom and I went to the DeYoung Museum and saw an excellent exhibition of either Munich or Berlin masterpieces. Two under an umbrella, dry and warm, more substantial, more of a center; centered; sharing. Sharing for another forty-three years.

Excerpted from Ariel: A Memoir by Ariel Parkinson. Copyright @ 2012 by Ariel Parkinson.

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