Issue 26: Jonathan Catherall
Hadrian’s Wall Country
Goretex patrols the border,
a demarcation of skins and compacted layers
of turf and earth and renewed foundations.
The sky is a lens opening and closing;
balmy hail becomes a flurry of sunshine.
The centurion at Milecastle 39
picks at the fungus between his toes,
adjusting aperture, until the blur in the distance
could be the welcome shimmer of the Batavian plain.
Leather boots with their ‘little gallics’
are cast off, a testament
to the anaerobic conditions,
which have kept us light-headed for years.
Constructing one fortification after another,
a dig every season,
tablets peeled from the loving gunk.
Placidus reports on the gift of 50 oysters,
and an American with a deep smear of mud
down the butt of his jeans
asks how much further.
On the massed formations of Great Whin Sill,
odds and earth tilted in our favour,
not even skirmishes, or sheep-stealing –
all the action’s elsewhere
except for that hot Tungrian cavalryman,
whose copper alloy phalerae were last year’s stand-out find.
Oddly-bearded, feral, no doubt ululating,
‘nor do the wretched Britons mount
in order to throw javelins’. Tempting
to see the cliff-edge
of the civilised so sharply fall away,
to make such distinctions, to roll
an imperial mouthful round, all minty-fresh.
Despite the gorgeous miscegenation of millennia,
metallic Britannia is once again detected
beneath a thin coat of topsoil,
a brazen composite of male voices
spoiling, a suitable currency
for the Ploughman’s in the attached café.
Wind whips the lough into crested waves.
Bogland is tufted with spring bite.
The camera is burdened with possibilities
and squalls of droplets; the eye
has been here before, at these piles of stones
meant to impart to us what we are
before they fix our location in the datasphere.
A barrel ‘of Celtic beer, costing asses 8’
or a Snickers bar
only strengthen the dark hand of power.
Lambs hammily repeat their mother’s trot.
The black flag snapping
is an escaped shred of plastic.
At this point, it is dulce et decorum
to accept facts on the ground.
There are no pubs in Once Brewed,
and a shortage of asses,
though a curly-haired adjutant sits
on the earliest known wooden toilet seat,
Thin leaves of wood
cut from the saplings of oak or alder,
‘the consistency of saturated
blotting paper when found’,
preserve intact the intention
‘to preserve my reputation intact…’
Gaps litter the landscape.
Gaps in the record
are the source of the juiciest gossip.
What is flung into the ditch
against the terrors of no place
becomes place in all its detriment.
Gaps cauterised by longing.
‘Yet all the same, I want it to be clear to you
that I am neither withdrawing from the mess or the club.’
The translator opts for
‘linen soaked in honey (?)’
The undergarments of beekeepers
store sweetest flaxseed.
Among the glass cases,
the elaborate chamfron almost complete retaining
some of its brass studs and plaques.
to my Cerealis
[ ] you had requested, sir?
[ ] inspect
[ ] traces
The horse wears cowhide lined with goat-skin;
each troop disposition, each conquering layer obscures
and obscenely brings to light; and can we
hear more about Virilis the veterinary doctor?
‘… quickly became a quagmire,
every feature and find
assuming the same muddy colour.’
The excavation is underway,
but it’s not just kneeling and gentle scraping,
there’s constant movement, thermos-laden,
a conversation between red and blue and green
waterproofed and gloved bodies;
as the summer mounts, presumably revealing more.
Even in metres of clogged clay,
the inklings of desire,
all aghast with love
for this churned-up patch.
Note: All the quotes are taken from Roman writing tablets recovered at the Vindolanda archeological dig - ‘the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain’ - or the exhibition material at the museum there.
Jonathan Catherall works in the charity and arts sector. He has published work in various magazines, mostly recently PN Review, Shearsman, Datableed, and The Interpreter's House; and his cyborg bestiary, a setting in the flesh, is forthcoming this year from Contraband. He edits the online poetry magazine Tentacular.
Copyright © 2021 by Jonathan Catherall, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.