Graves in the jungle

As you read, please listen to this piano composition, written and performed by Vassil Spassov in response to my poem. Vassil is a renowned jazz musician and composer. He is one of my few remaining Bulgarian relatives; the son of Metodi, who features in the poem. I am moved by Vassil’s musical interpretation and deeply grateful for his permission to share his piece. All rights reserved 2018 by Vassil Spassov.



Zornitsa, your second cousin, draws

the skeleton of our lineage on paper.

I have trouble following her rattle

through generations.

We visit their graves,

photographs stained with lipstick kisses.

Grief makes an intruder of me.


Standing before your father’s headstone

I am older than he ever was. My grandfather.


There are taboos: certain stories

get repeated, others buried.

I’ve heard it said

your uncle worried himself to death

after you escaped to the West

disappearing without a word

of warning. Reproach is closely guarded

hushed and amplified over time.

His wife, your aunt Stefka, harbors

a quiet opinion about your mother:

she was differentразличен

but won’t tell me how.

We light thin yellow candles

that won’t stand

and scatter flowers

from the roadside stall.

The cemetery is overgrown with weeds:

a jungle, Stefka says.

Her stockings catch on twigs.


Metodi, her younger brother,

sweet deep old man

who reminds me of you,

drags grass and dirt on his soles.

This pilgrimage wears

even on veteran mourners.

I swallow the impulse to help them clean up,

afraid of crossing lines.


They take us to the church their father built.

Metodi looks up in awe at the frescoes

hands clasped behind his back

childlike, fatherlike

mud-caked boots on marble.

He distributes coins

for us to light more candles

for the dead.


Weak flames and religious iconography

waver in my watery vision:

lives lived devastatingly

out of reach.


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