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Contemporary Italian American Writing

In Memorium to Joe Salerno 1947-1995
Four Sample Poems from Song of the Tulip Tree, Bordighera Prize Winning Book ©1999, by Joe Salerno

SONG OF THE TULIP TREE | IN THE DARK | SOME NIGHTS | READING JAMES WRIGHT'S LAST BOOK

Songs of the Tulip TreeJoe Salerno's book Song of the Tulip Tree won the Bordighera Poetry Prize in 1999 and was translated into Italian by Emanuel DePasquale. Felix Stefanile was the judge. Joe Salerno was born in the Bronx on April 2, 1947, and moved to New Jersey with his family when he was seven. He received his B.A. in English at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he edited the literary magazine Now. His graduate work was done at the University of Michigan under the tutelage of such fine poets as Donald Hall and Robert Hayden. In 1972, Joe won the Hopwood Award, Michigan's most coveted prize for poetry. This honor is further distinguished by its being won by exceptional American writers such as Arthur Miller, John Ciardi, X.J. Kennedy, Jane Kenyon, and Gregory Orr. Although Joe received his doctoral degree and taught for some years at the undergraduate level,Salerno the concerns of marriage and family compelled him to work in the private sector as a technical writer, a job he did surpassingly well in spite of a lifelong aversion to technology. He continued to write poetry and to publish in such well-known magazines as Wormwood Review and Yankee, as well as receiving a 1982 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in poetry. Joe Salerno died of lung cancer on November 22,1995, and is survived by his wife, Beverly, and his three children, David, Miriam, and Daniel pictured reading from his work at The Bordighera Awards Ceremony at Poets House in 1999.

When he died in 1995, Joe left behind a legacy of hundreds of poems and dozens of manuscripts. Only Here, Salerno's first book was published posthumously by the efforts of "Friends of Salerno" and The Skylands Writers Association.

Salerno

Salerno's work has received praise from many poets including Donald Hall who wrote of Joe's poetry: "The greatest characteristic of Joe Salerno's poetry is love for the world of things, of flesh, and of language. His sensibility is amative and erotic...Joe has left behind a triumphant, sweet, and astounding book."

SONG OF THE TULIP TREE


I stand alone
in my great height.
I cherish nothing


more than my own roots.
The decay of the world
is my nourishment.


What happens below me
passes like the floss
from autumn milkweed;


And the stars
are no more than the hum of gnats
tossing in the vault


of my summer shade.
Not death not grief
not the thunder of human history


sways the vast and wrinkled
stone of my trunk.
My joy is in the sun


and the rain and the passionate
art of the wind
stirring like a lover


the enormous green play
of my branches.
What dies beneath me


finds no pity,
but in time is taken up
and sent out briefly to dance:


a nameless leaf in the wide
blue music of the weather.
And you, far below,


with your small face
looking up, I have no need
for homage.


Your human heart
is no more to me than a sparrow's
egg blown from its nest.


But if sometimes
out of loneliness or a desperate
urge to praise


you would seek me out,
then press your faint hand
reverently against


the ancient hide of my bark.
In a hundred years
your touch will travel through


each ring of my immense
armored heart, to tell me
you were here.

IN THE DARK

With his head
On my shoulder, my newborn son
Has fallen asleep. In the dark,
I hold him there, resting
My cheek on his forehead - a violinist
Who has put down his bow
And stands quietly overwhelmed
By his own music.

SOME NIGHTS

Some nights I am seized by a panic.


A fear pushing out of my chest
Like a glistening flower. And I want to hide;
To bury my face in the soft legs
Of my wife, or faint in her kiss.


Out of this hole in my side,
I am leaving
Behind a trail of my days.
And everything I touch with my hands
Breaks into flames.


And I feel inside me this falling;
Terrified, afraid to let go.
When to open my eyes is a shout.
And I hold my voice like a gun
In the dark and wait.


On these nights I sleep so deeply,
And dream of leaping over trees and houses.
Stunning dreams in which my mind,
Intense and powerful, by thought alone
Can move solid objects.

READING JAMES WRIGHT'S LAST BOOK

I sit down alone under a tree in the backyard
And read the last poems of James Wright.
Afraid for the book to end, I stop for a long time
Between each poem, and when I have finished
Two or three, I go back and read them again, aloud,
letting the voice reveal whatever my eyes had missed
The first time -- that harsh, compassionate voice,
Defeated beyond defeat, moving tenderly over
The broken landscapes of Italy and grim Ohio.
And what I feel is a public loss, part of nature;
Like the way we'll all feel when they tell us
The last Great Blue whale has sounded for the last time
And the whole sea is empty that day ...
"Good-bye to the living place," he says at the end
Of the poem on page 18, "and all I ask it to do
Is to stay alive," And there, on the clean white space,
An ant climbs up the edge of the book
And enters the page.

Copyright © 1999-2001 by Beverly Salerno -- wife of Joe Salerno. All rights reserved.

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