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CONTAGION

‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe,  and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’ Francesco Petrarch

 

Somewhere near the estuary of the Don,

with its mudflats and meanders, north

of the Sea of Azov, and somewhere

near the Volga Delta, with its pelicans

and flamingos, north of the Caspian,

on the steppe lands are black rats and fleas

and yersinia pestis. The rats

like human warmth, and the fleas can leap.

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THE TOP OF THE RISE

For John Chapman

 

I can see for miles across the wolds, low hills

receding. The top of the rise is a field

of stubble that was rape. I imagine

last year’s sweet scented, false meadow of sharp

yellow and green. On the field’s far side

a flock of wild geese is grazing the stalks.

The cloudless, cerulean sky, empty

of con trails, seems closer, domed, as if curved

like our planet. In an ancient copse,

below the rise,

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GUESTS OF LIFE

‘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,

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THE SICK MAN OF EUROPE

For John Plummer

 

‘History is a people’s memory.’ Malcolm X

 

It is VE Day. Though those who still survive –

the eye witnesses – tell angrily of waste

not sacrifice, what should have been a day

of the dead, and the maimed, and the displaced

worldwide is here one of tea parties, sing-songs –

while the toll mounts as if it were the first day

of the Somme. They lied then. They are lying now –

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WAITING AT THE GATE

On the notice board of the Methodist Church –

on the opposite side of the street

from where I sit at my desk typing this –

is a poster. It is a colour photograph.

In the foreground is a wooden five bar gate.

 

Once I am certain there are no prisoners,

like me, at their exercise – voluntary

exiles walking their dogs in the middle

of the road avoiding others in lycra –

I go over for a closer look.

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THE TEARS OF CHRIST

‘He beheld the city, and wept over it.’  Luke 19.41

 

We went up Mount Vesuvius by bus,

and stood on the rim of the crater

watching gases emerge from fissures.

We bought two bottles – a red and a white –

of the local wine, Lachryma Christi,

 for a fellow atheist from the gift shop.

As we walked back down the fertile slopes – the sea

before us, hazy, tranquil – we heard

a cuckoo. All of Campania seemed stilled –

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A RIGHT CHARIVARI!

All seemed particularly dystopian

as I walked out one morning down the high street,

towards MacDonald’s and KFC,

Café Nero, Costa and Starbucks,

boarded-up shops and charity shops,

and two young men selling the Big Issue.

Maybe it was the noise: the traffic’s grind,

an elderly busker’s cacophonous chords,

the fire engine howling – outside the KFC!

I approached the forming crowd, and overheard,

from customers smelling of smoke, rumours:

that one of the Kentucky Colonel’s

deep fat fryers had exploded into flame,

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BANK HOLIDAY

The heavy shower drilled on the frosted glass.

We sheltered under one of the high street’s

open arcades with sloping glazed-roofs  –

a Victorian refinement to the resort:

shopping sheltered from seaside weathers.

We were, by chance, in front of Poundland:

one window displayed Pepsi Max, the other

Cadbury’s Highlights, both cut-price sugar.

The Bank Holiday crowd sheltering with us

seemed disproportionately stricken, impaired,

overwhelmingly loud or utterly

silent, with austerity’s complexion.

 

As the rain began to clear a man,

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BILLY GOATS GRUFF

After dark, down the steep lanes of the Great Orme –

a two mile long limestone promontory,

named by Norsemen for a dragon’s head –

past the synagogue and the funicular,

avoiding the temptations of the Pier,

into the lamp-lit, locked-down thoroughfare,

came the Kashmiri billy goats, white as snow,

as clouds, as sea spume. Runaways or outcasts

from a flock imported for their wool,

occasional mascots for the Royal Welsh,

those noisome foragers with their prophets’ beards

and trophy horns capered to the churchyard

and its privet hedges,

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APOCALYPSE

Via Del Corso, Rome, March 2020.

The boutiques had been closed by decree, even

Calvin Klein Underwear and Brooks Brothers.

The only pedestrians were the Pope,

in his white robes, and his bodyguard,

in bulging suits – on a pilgrimage

to the ancient church of San Marcello

set back from the street. Beneath a crucifix,

used to assuage a 15th century plague,

Pope Francis prayed to God to stop the virus.

 

The street, in Roman times, was Via Lata –

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