The Music of Home

Ruth Padel
For Nikos Daskalakis

Arriving at Ellis Island, I watch the glass alps of Manhattan
soar above one-storey buildings
that must have looked terrifying when they were the only ones
as you came over the rainbow from Europe in 1854...
Yes, soar, and take off from the emerald of Battery Park
like Vagrant Emperor dragonflies beginning their long
migrate across the Indian Ocean. Arriving at Ellis Island
(hoisted on landfill from bowels of the New York subway
from a knoll once private to fishermen and gulls),
I head for treasure, donated by families
whose great-great-grandparents man-handled them
all of three thousand miles. "She took all she could carry,"
fathers reminded children in a thousand languages.

How about we go there Niko, someday? Youd get up
from your apartment in Heraklion where your daughter
is at music college. Before you were so ill, I heard her sing
under the old walls which used, as I recall, to shelter a bar,
a hole in the wall hollowed out from Saracen stones,
where we'd swig home-stilled raki and dance
on sawdust while an old man sang the Erotokritos
and played spoons on his knee. The moat
is cleaned up now, paved and re-hewn for family
recreation. Yes, arriving at Ellis Island, you and I,
we'd begin with a Finnish copper coffee pot,
a panel of embroidered silk from China, a mould
for rice crackers (Japan), a Turkish towel from Palestine,

a brass noodle-cutter from Austro-Hungary like two
linked raincoloured spurs, and a carved coconut
from Guyana. But then wed light on an Armenian 'oud,
Hungarian zither, horse-hair bow from Korea,
an Irish tambourine and finally a little Cretan lyra
carved from a single plank, complete with its bow
of hawk bells like the lyra Thanassis Skordalos played
for his first recording, 1946, with Giannis
Markogiannakis on lute. And we'd remind each other
how we used to work all day in the burning sun
then dance all night. How Kostas, aged seventy,
showed us the steps of Pentozali but we could never
keep up with the flicker of his neat black shoes.

And we'd laugh: that dancing and singing to lyra
mattered more in the dark, on Ariadne's shore,
than anything on earth. Arriving alone today
at Ellis Island I think of the years you worked

the boats. Your letters came rarely because your hand,
you said after, was never steady. One ship
anchored you a year off Egypt, a national scandal
hushed up, two hundred Greek cement boats
be-calmed in one enormous harbour
no one had paid anyone, it was a combat zone
for dodgy insurance companies with you
in the middle, you never got your wages
and had to pawn your underpants to get repatriated

but one velvet night you heard Cretan music
over the water and next day you dived
into that swamp of sewage, sharks and garbage
thrown from a thousand ships, as into an avenue
of green silk, to find the one guy
in this madhouse playing the music of home.

 

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