Plein Air and Postmodern: The Art and Craft of Jack Cassinetto


“THISTLES” (poetry) and “THE LONELY CYPRESS” (oil painting on handmade frame)

Portrait of the artist/poet as a young man. Photo from “SONORA: Images of America” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007)

Aphrodite was said to have used the thistle, a prickly, self-sowing plant, to lure her lover Phaon. It is highly intriguing then that the only known poetry collection by the artist Jack Cassinetto should be titled thus. “Thistles” is a glimpse into an earlier art-life seemingly influenced by Jungian elements and postmodernism.

The poet is, first and foremost, a master painter. George Lucas and Ron Howard, art enthusiasts and owners of a Cassinetto or two will agree: he captures and dramatizes any given landscape. His play of light, air, diffused edges and subdued colors creates artwork that is compelling and haunting, in the best traditions of Tonalist and Arts-and-Crafts artists. His forms are essentially tonal in structure and temperament, but where his palette is more low-toned than high-keyed, Cassinetto’s poetry is intense and decidedly unfettered.

Published in 1972, “Thistles” is a slim volume of 61 poems, interspersed with surrealist drawings. The poems are mostly confessional free verse, the tone ranging from ironic to meditative. Note the cryptic humor in “THREE POEMS FROM ANTHROPOLOGY”:

If you look at a
cow’s skull from the side
you see an eye like a marble
looking down at my dinner
the eye sees me
I cut, it cries
I beg your pardon eye
but if I don’t munch
I’ll die
An Infra order came
up to me
Ceboidea was he
the Cercopithecoidea
came and sat
how quaint
was last
An old skull talked to me
all we talked about was her
but he said
she would die
and hang like him in

The voice tones are playful and slightly wry (as seen in the mention of skulls, old and new world monkeys etc); the imagery is juxtaposed, creating a literary collage that is fluid and arresting. “THE CIGAR FACTORY,” on the other hand, maintains a rhythmic, almost-melancholic stance, the moodiness reading like broken brushwork:

Rain drops keep———-
and way in the wide of a dream
is a haloed vision
glowing in classic composure
and everything is a frame
a staircase
a piano
moving manikins
all frames
and once framed it is easier to
see the contents of the painting
———-falling on———-
and as if before a Monet one is
taken by the brightness and the play
of light
and it’s too easy to be
by the texture of the paint

“PRAYER” is expressionist in mood and content, as well as prosodically Ginsbergian:

I pray to stay alive
beyond the temper of the times
ahead of men
who drag their feet to ball
games and beer

Who can talk about the Giants
with despair or give the Mets
any dignity?
Or T.V. bound can sit around
to see the Celtics roar
Feel rather your wife’s despair
and see in her soap operas
her desperation
and listen to her tears
and pay attention to her fears

Raise yourself from your
living graves and kiss
yourself in the mirror

Cassinetto grew up during the post-war years, a seminal time period spawning the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat Generation, and the counterculture of the 1960s. This puts “A WAR POEM” in a sociological context:

A wedding just went down
this street amid firecrackers
and horns
and I heard them say, “He just
got back from Vietnam yesterday.”
and then, “They got married today.”
and I feel good to hear them
“He got back from Vietnam

Particularly fascinating, too, are the drawings included in the book: at once surrealist and archetypal. There is, for instance, an illustration depicting male-female dualism evocative of a taiji diagram, which also calls to mind the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, with the animus seeming to overpower the female aspect. (It is interesting to note that the book begins with a quote from Carl Gustav Jung, to wit: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”)

In hindsight, the collection may appear to merely footnote an otherwise celebrated life in the arts, and as such, requires no validation. The poems, however, offer broader and more layered perspectives on the man and his craft (or even beyond his craft).

Cassinetto may be tonalist in his art and postmodern in his poetry, but he is arguably polymorphous in character, dark and sobering, on the one hand, outrightly comedic, on the other; his humor, alternately observational and satirical; his psyche, driven by equal parts passion and brilliance. As for the thistle, folkloric symbol of endurance, its prickles are intended as much for pain as for protection, which is perhaps why Cassinetto chose said plant as cover design (or metaphorical covering) for his poetry collection.

It has been 40 years since the book was first published; pop art is now retro, and new formalism in poetry has re-discovered the more traditional forms of verse. Jack Cassinetto, on the other hand, has wrestled with the esoteric fire to find light and air, and re-define landscape, which is, in itself, poetry in one of its finest forms.

(“THISTLES” was first published in 1972. This review originally appeared in Galatea Resurrects # 12.)

Aileen Cassinetto is the author of the poetry collection, traje de boda (Meritage Press) and four poetry chaps through Moria Books’ Locofo series.


Jack Cassinetto spent the final day of his life doing what he loved most — capturing the beauty of California in his artwork.