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.

Placidus writes:

          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.