NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves and Other Poems by Aileen I. Cassinetto
(Little Dove Books, Morgan Hill, CA, 2018)
Aileen I. Cassinetto is a Filipino American author and poet whose work has been published widely in anthologies and journals at home and abroad. She is the author of the poetry collection, traje de boda (Meritage Press) and three poetry chapbooks, The Art of Salamat, B&O Blues and Tweet (Locofo). She also runs an independent literary press established in 2016, which has released 16 books to date.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Cassinetto is a poet who, by her own admission, is moved by shorelines and several of the works in this collection are never far from the sea. In Salambao (a word for a large Philippine fishing net which is supported by a long bamboo crosspiece mounted on a raft) she tells her readers:
to write of waters
in remembrance of my mythic
forefather, island-man fisherman,
rowing two thousand
nautical miles without
to cast out his net below
sunlit surface waters.
Her poetry and prose teem with life and life-giving water. In the opening poem, From “The Enormous River Encircling the World” we are introduced to Okeanos, the divine personification of the sea, who is envisaged as an enormous river enclosing the known world. Cassinetto invites us to explore its watery depths. Here we find pelagic marine molluscs, an eye-banded sailor fish, freshwater fish from the family Cichlidae, the common sea dragon, large seahorses, reef pipefish, brittle stars and stumpy-spined cuttlefish. There are plants here too, seaside fleabane, sea pinks and sagebrush. Into this abundant, colorful setting, “the might of the ocean stream” Cassinetto adds a word of caution:
learn the art of camouflage.
Seas can be dangerous. In Point Joe –a rocky southwestern end of Spanish Bay, California, Cassinetto writes forcefully about shipwrecks, and commemorates one in particular, the loss of the Catalina, that happened there:
How do you mark less than shining hours?
The loss of a ship?
For Cassinetto, the sea even flows into art. In A Day at the Museum with a Poet, three out of the four paintings that she chooses to comment on have the sea at their heart: Monet’s “The Beach at Trouville”, Braque’s “Little Harbor in Normandy” and Picasso’s “The Scallop Shell”.
Cassinetto is a poet of unhurried reflection. Viewing “The Beach at Trouville” she sees more than just the beach scene. She observes the grains of sand on its surface revealing that it must have been painted on the beach and wonders whether the composition defined the uncertainty in the summer of 1870. In Braque’s sea and sky, she captures the energy and abstraction of the composition in its compressed treatment of space and its severe geometrical patterning. In three of the four paintings viewed in this poem, she poses questions in search of truth.
Monet and his house at Giverny are the subject of a separate poem which appears a page or so later. Monet loved colors and chose all the colors in the house. Colors, which Cassinetto likens to individual plants, are at the heart of this poem.
Her poems also teem with objects. In The Cabinet of the World and the Journeys of Women, Cassinetto documents some of the contents of Caroline of Ansbach’s room of wonder. Cassinetto tells us that the poem was inspired by the “Enchanted Palace” Exhibiton (London, 2010) and by “Wunderkammer” (Royal Collection Trust). In the poem she places emphasis on the fact that the interests of this Georgian queen who brought the enlightenment to Britain went far beyond the collecting and cataloguing of mere curiosities. They also embraced science and medicine. Her decision to inoculate the royal children against smallpox convinced many other parents that the procedure was safe:
But how do you catalog
ideas such as inoculation?
surely, it warrants its own class—
one that speaks of grit and
The cataloging of objects in the first part of the poem is matched by the cataloging of books in The Boatman’s Book Spine Poetry which was inspired by titles featured in Our Own Voice’s Bookshelf. It is another example of a found poem which is also a list poem.
Language is another focus of attention. Cassinetto is a poet who wrestles with the weight of words. In the Island of Good Boots, a poem about culture, tradition, authority and servitude, is a case in point. The two essays, How a Manileña Learned a Language and Lost in Translation provide us with an insight into the difficulties encountered in learning a new language and, by implication, a new culture. Words in Tagalog, Romaji, Latin and Spanish are a feature of her work.
There is also a sense in which her poems and prose are grounded in history. Historical dates are frequent markers in her work: one of her poems is titled Isle of Skye, 1920; three of the four works of art she alludes to in A Day at the Museum with a Poet carry the dates of their composition; her poems San Francisco Haiku and Summer of Love are referenced as the summer of ’67; B & 0 Blues No. 3 tells of Chinese workers blasting areas for railroad tracks in the Sierra Nevada in 1868 and the Union Pacific’s Irish laborers laying tracks in Utah in 1869 and Lolo Claudio in Colorado opens with events in the early part of the twentieth century when Filipinos, being U.S. national citizens, were allowed to travel freely to America.
In the story from which the title of this collection is derived, a piece that Cassinetto describes as unfinished prose, we discover more about the purple yam or ube which is now gaining notoriety in several restaurants across the cities of America where it shows up in a lot of desserts because of its slightly sweet flavor and rich texture. It is in this story that Cassinetto gives us a little bit of traditional Filipino cuisine and also, by implication, culture. The story, which she started writing about ten years ago, was intended to be a novel but, because the narrative is cohesive enough, it now stands on its own.
Of her essays, special mention should be made of The Color of Kalamunding – a well-crafted meditational piece that likens the separation of a type of citrus fruit from its parent branch and, ultimately, from itself (Do the golden orange halves feel the loss of the golden orange whole?) to the separation of the soul from the body. In it, Cassinetto traces the process of separation and the business of dying, through the use of metaphor. The essay is also about how memory, the means by which we preserve our link with the past, also fails us in the long term. Sadly, our recollections become colored by our limitations and perceptions.
A shorter essay, Traveling with Tsinelas, explores the subject of exile and longing. When the author is invited to a Filipino family’s home for dinner, the mere sight of a row of pairs of tsinelas (a term derived from the Filipino word for flip-flops) fills her with emotion:
It was the most beautiful sight. They stood for everything I was so sorely and terribly missing – my home, my family, fragments of my culture.
In Lolo Claudio in Colorado, Cassinetto pays homage to her great grandfather and grandfather and ultimately to the three million Filipino Americans scattered across the U.S. today: the country where, as a poet, she first broke her stride.
In her inauguration address on her appointment as Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, Cassinetto said “to be a poet is to help build, gather, restore. It’s about hope, that great unifier, which transforms lives, which fortifies communities, which changes the world.” This collection of her poetry and prose does just that. It is a positive testimony to the power of creativity and the tenacity of the human spirit. Recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.