By Tammy Scileppi
You don’t often hear about a former high school teacher from Flushing having his poem immortalized in marble by the patriarch of a prominent family living in Southern Italy.
But truth can be stranger than fiction, and published poet Vincent Tomeo still can’t believe that it actually happened.
It takes a bard who possesses the soul of an artist to put into words the heart-stopping beauty that he witnessed one balmy evening before dusk during a trip to the picturesque town of Monterosso Calabro in ancient Calabria back in April 2015.
Tomeo described that unique experience – looking down from a tower atop a grand villa – as only a poet can: “The sun was setting, pouring its orchestra of colors over a charming, sleepy village nestled in the hills of Monterosso, as a winding lake snaked its way through the hills to the sea.”
So inspired was he by the town’s bucolic, rustic landscape and dramatic coastline that he decided to write a poem reflecting what he saw. He called it “A View from a Tower in Calabria, Italy.”
Una vista da una torre in Calabria
A winding lake snakes through bifurcated hills
like lazy flowers wobbling in the breeze
Stucco rust roofs are necklaces on the hills
blushing in the light, pink-fog-white, dark emerald green…
Parting hills are cheeks smiling
On roosters crowing, dogs barking, birds chirping
Water trickles awakening everything
As in a grand finale of an Opera
A stunning sunset is an orchestra of red-orange-gold-fuchsia
Melodious curtains of light make me feel like the god Mercury
Born from a Spring, Sprouting freely, pointing to heaven
Wings at my feet
I want to travel the world, share all that I see
If only there were peace.
Lapped by the splendid crystal blue Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, the region is described as the toe of the Italian Peninsula, which resembles a boot, separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina.
According to the Lonely Planet travel guides, “If a Vespa-riding, siesta-loving, chaotically unadorned version of Italy still exists, you’ll probably find it in Calabria.”
It’s no wonder then that Tomeo chose to stay at a lovely villa in that part of the world. And it so happened that the owner of Agriturismo Villa Velia was so impressed with the American visitor’s poetic verse, he decided to arrange for his poem to be sculpted in marble and promised his new friend that one day, it would grace his home in Calabria for the whole town to see.
Thanks to Antonio Parisi’s vision and appreciation for Tomeo’s work, the humble poet from Queens will be honored and recognized at an eagerly anticipated ribbon-cutting ceremony set for April 5, in Monterosso Calabro in Calabria, upon Tomeo’s return to the place where he was so inspired. Townspeople, the Italian press, several officials, including the mayor of Monterosso, and, of course, Mr. Parisi, will gather to watch the unveiling of the poem, sculpted into marble, and hear the poet recite his verses. Tomeo’s words are etched in English, along with his name and followed by New York City, USA.
“I am quite happy and actually stunned that this all came to pass,” said Tomeo, who never dreamed he would become a poet. For 28 years, he taught American and Global History, as well as ESL at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows. He said it gave his life purpose.
Prior to that, he worked as an archivist and historian, and at one point in his career, was lucky enough to rub elbows with legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, when he participated in projects related to Burns’ memorable films “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Civil War.”
Looking back on his trip to Italia, Tomeo recalled during a recent interview how his special poem came to be.
“Mr. Parisi told me, ‘You should go to the top of the villa when the sun sets. It’s very lovely.’” So, he did and it was breathtaking. “Here I am, witnessing this absolute beauty, and it was so peaceful,” Tomeo said.
Picture a serene mosaic of colors – like a watercolor painting – awash with pastel hues. The scene seemed to transform at sunset, becoming more vibrant and defined. In some ways, it resembled a classic masterpiece; one that may have been painted by an Italian master. Imagine a winding lake, parting emerald green hills, a crystal blue ocean – reminiscent of the beautiful landscapes seen in the background of many Renaissance paintings by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Piero della Francesca. Like Tomeo, they too were inspired by Italy’s natural beauty — its hills, rivers and forests.
“Stucco rust roofs are necklaces on the hills…”
The charming area, dotted with old-fashioned villages, probably reminded an urban dweller like Tomeo that there are still places in the world that remain untouched by modernday accoutrements.
Mesmerized by Calabria’s landscape and clean air, Tomeo said he forgot that dinner was being served downstairs in the villa’s dining room, where he would be breaking bread with Parisi and his family.
Picture the setting: An elegant country home filled with antiques and artwork, where you can sense an air of gracious European gentility, and enjoy the strong aromas and flavors of simply cooked Italian fare.
“Well, I was late coming down from the villa’s tower and Parisi was a little annoyed because, you know, with traditional Italians, you can’t be late for dinner,” Tomeo quipped. “But Parisi was a class act, a classy gentleman. I told him I was writing a poem, and he said, ‘Well, read it to me.’ So, I did. Then he said, ‘Read it again.’ So, I read it again,” said Tomeo. After three times, Parisi said, “I like that poem very much. Can I have a copy?” And the flattered poet replied, “Yes, but it’s in progress. I just wrote it.”
Then Parisi told him, “I’m going to have that sculpted into marble.”
That entire experience in Calabria was like a celebration of sorts for Tomeo, especially because he had lost his eyesight several years earlier, while battling a serious illness. He would be blind for over a year.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he accepted the cards he was dealt and joined a support group for the blind, where he described his feelings about not being able to see. Everyone seemed quite moved by his heartfelt manner and eloquent delivery, and he was told his words sounded like poetry.
Tomeo said he was thrilled. He quickly switched gears, and yearning for a creative outlet, began writing a series of poems in Braille that he was eager to share with others. As a lyricist, he has made several recordings and tapings: “Vincent J. Tomeo, Poetry in Braille – Several Poems,” read and taped for the blind and produced by the Lighthouse International (New York City, 1999). In addition, he made “Pastoral Symphony,” and “Mind in Flux” – two poems set to music. His “Ode to Eyes” was read in Ephesus Amphitheater, Kusadasi, Turkey in October 2015.
The brave poet was fortunate enough to recover his precious eyesight and continued to re-invent himself. Poetry became his passion and from then on it was full speed ahead, as he developed an addiction to his craft. Currently, he has a whopping 749 poems and essays under his belt that have been published in various magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. Along the way, his prolific works have garnered much praise, and so far he has won 99 awards and counting. In addition, “Poets Without Borders,” the Alabama State Poetry Society, recognized him as its premier international poet.
Born and raised in Corona, Tomeo has lived in the most diversified area on the planet his entire life. “Corona has a very special place in my heart,” he said, adding, “I’m a Queens boy, but internationally acclaimed.
“I have recited my poems everywhere – across the U.S., throughout Queens, and even in Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. But ‘A View from a Tower in Calabria, Italy’ is my best publication, and I’m excited that I will have an opportunity to read it there when I return in April.”
It will be a memorable poem – memorabile la poesia – by a global poet.
Tomeo, who is 69, is currently volunteering at the 9/11 Tribute Center Museum at Ground Zero. He read a series of poems titled “Never Let Them Win” and “I Visited the Flight 93 Memorial,” during numerous 9/11 Tributes at Ground Zero, between 2013 and 2015.
He said he is really looking forward to the upcoming ceremony in Calabria, which was coordinated by Parisi. And as he gets ready for his trip, Tomeo seems overwhelmed with emotion. He said he decided to write another poem to honor his friend, Mr. Parisi: “Marble Words, A Shrine, and This is An Ode to Antonio Parisi.”
Who would think to make words come alive?
“I was very touched that he did that for me. It’s a testament to the man that he is,” Tomeo said.
A true patron of the arts, Parisi is one of the original founders of another well-known attraction, the Monterosso Calabro Museum of Farming and Crafts, which features old agricultural items, as well as crafts by local artists. It was recognized by the European Union as one of the best museums in Europe.
“Poetry is an integral part of my life,” Tomeo said. “And since April is Poetry Month, I’d like to share this story with others, maybe give other poets encouragement,”
He concluded, “There’s no greater joy for a poet than to share his work with the public.”