‘The Dead of the Greek Enclosure in West Norwood Cemetery Speak to Me’ by Kostya Tsolakis

For our exclusive set, only the best:
pink granite, Portland stone, architects.
Our tongues were glossed tiles
fired in Eton and Harrow. Orthodox names,
tough meat for English mouths, recast
as Bobby, Alec, Jack. In death,
our accent is emphatically Hellenic:
competent bodies, turned redundant bones, housed
in solemn Doric temples, barrel-vaulted mausolea,
fine marble sarcophagi carved
with sphinxes, laurel crowns, alphas and omegas.
Nothing to envy from ancient kings.

Wheat ears and bolls of Egyptian cotton
festoon our memorials. Clues
to all that made us rich, chewed away,
irreverently, by black mould and pollution.
Mutton-chopped gods of commerce,
spunky shipowners, benefactors,
cornerstone-laying fathers
of a close-knit diaspora rest among us.

Beloved wives of the above.

Too many little lungs,
minor footnotes in our story, spoiled
by this city’s gritty smoke.

We never truly called this island home.
Its soft-edged climate. Peephole sun.
Egos we bested on hardwood trading floors
called us intruders, wily Easterners
more turned on by a deal in wool
than a lecture by Socrates. A downgrade
from our famed forefathers.

Even you, visitor,
our homeland buried in your teeth,
find us alien, struggle
with our epitaphs’ ossified Greek
that pulls its hair in grief, offers tearful libations.
You frown at our pairings:
uncles matched with nieces, cousins
with cousins. A handful of dynasties trading
their teenage sons and daughters.
Trust, kinship, hierarchy, cohesion
made waterproof through marriage bonds.

Your peculiar hunger
does not quite fit our criteria, your body
has no currency among us.
Why are you here this cawing afternoon?
Why stumble on this rumpled, sodden ground
that lilts our mossy crosses, threatens
to uncap our graves? So what
if you find solace in your name –
a trip hazard outside our enclave –
repeating on slab after slab? So what
if you think us mislaid
in this grey suburb? Opulent monuments
looking forlorn, vandalised doors
boarded up, vaults sloppily patched
with unadorned concrete. So what
if no one lights a candle for us anymore,
leaves no offerings
but crushed beer cans
and mildewed cigarette packs?
We and our memorials are here to stay.

Will you ever call this island home?
For now, you’re breathful, uncased.
When they scatter you against some wind
or other, who’ll remember you?

Go back to your mother. Your xenitia
has been a kind of death for her.