‘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.