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‘We are the guests of life.’ Martin Heidegger

 ‘In ancient Greek the word for ‘guest’ is the same as the word for ‘foreigner’: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word ‘xenophobia’ survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word ‘xenophilia’ has disappeared…’ George Steiner


For Cicero books were the ‘soul of the house’.

The Ancient Romans knew a thing or two

about staying safe in uncivil times.

Nevertheless on his way to sail abroad

the lawyer, statesman, writer, orator

polymath was assassinated

by Roman soldiers obeying the orders

of a vindictive kleptocracy. His head

and his hands were nailed up in The Forum.

Each autumn an affliction of starlings

would swoop above Rome like a chattering net.

Now in the abandoned Coliseum

there are only cats, and the shadows of cats.


I watch a neighbour’s cat  – obviously

well fed at home, sleek, sharp-eyed – practising

its instinctive hunting skills in our garden.

Its belly to the ground, it pads forward,

inch by silent inch, then leaps on its prey –

a peacock butterfly opening its wings.

Shocked I almost cry out – but what should

cats know about the absence of butterflies,

or butterflies about the instincts of cats?

But we do – who will risk death to nurse strangers,

and who will slaughter others in a moment.


There is no one available now to wind

the parish church clock, whose bells chimed

the quarters and the hours through world wars,

whose hands moved implacably. I can glimpse

the steeple, as I walk the hundred paces

along our garden paths, over the lawns,

across the terraces – where my lovely ghosts

jostle at each turn. I think of house arrest,

self-exile – Ovid, Galileo, the Franks –

note the laburnum’s yellow ringlets

loud with bees, and the wisteria’s sweet

sensuous perfume, the blackbirds nesting

in the ivy, magpies in the snowy drifts

of the pear tree, and consider myself

blessed, if there were blessings to be doled,

having people to love who are living.




© Copyright David Selzer
5 Responses
  • Ian Craine
    May 29, 2020

    Five particularly excellent poems this time around, David. I shall restrict myself to one comment though. Not the wonderful and wholly justified anger of ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ but the church clock here in ‘Guests of Life’. I know that church so well though I have never been in it and rather shamefully cannot even remember its name. But many a walk have I taken along Hoole Road and heard its chimes marking each quarter. Once after selling the family home in Newton I stayed the night in a BnB nearby and heard it from my bedroom. It feels like an old friend. Obviously things suffer and get neglected in these difficult times, but it does seem sad that something that kept going through two world wars is now silent.

    • David Selzer
      May 29, 2020

      Sad, indeed, Ian. It’s All Saints – so all bets covered! It gets a mention in Pevsner’s CHESHIRE. He describes the interior as ‘dull’. I think the instruction to keep places of worship locked has been taken rather too literally here. Someone – the vicar, who lives fifty feet away – going in once a week to wind the clock would not breach the guidelines, which, of course, relate to congregations.

  • Ashen Venema
    May 29, 2020

    A great reminder … Xenos – guest – foreigner – where would we be without opening our doors to them, be they alive or having passed on. Yes. We’re all guests. Re: Church clock. I grew up in a village where the church chimed every quarter, and each hour in full, just to bring us back to present time.

  • Elise Oliver
    June 1, 2020

    ‘Guests of Life’. Another great poem, David, and a timely reminder of existentialism and how to savour the fragile joys of existence. My only problem stems from the reference to Cicero, whom I have been attempting to forget since the unfortunate incident of my Latin A Level exam… Otherwise, as someone who thinks every silver lining has a cloud, I really appreciated the lesson in optimism and went out to quietly contemplate my garden.

  • Hugh Powell
    June 2, 2020

    Thank you once again for allowing us to share your vision and breadth of wisdom.

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