Inscription on a 1st century Roman tombstone in Hexham.
The wolf and wild boar wintered here
where Flavinus’ impetuous latin blood
felt the unkindness of snow
and the granite hardness of the Wall
whose builders he defended against
the brutal insurgence of Pict and Celt.
Days of cracked leather, blistered hands,
the horses’ breath rising like bath-house steam,
a northern mist obscuring the sun’s retina;
remembering the soft, olive-perfumed
flesh of southern lovers in the rough,
hessian coupling of Celtic women —
the wire-boned, woad-stained, spoils of war,
who worshipped alien Gods and stank
of semen and ambiguous politics.
Flavinus, Standard-Bearer to the Troop —
speared by the carved barbarian
trampled under his horse — killed
by the cold driven in on the east wind
scouring the Tyne gap through this bleak
border town where everything closes at five —
his final dread — to leave his bones
to winter north in the sour peat, covered
by the same grey stone he died for.
Credit note: “‘To the Gods the Shades'” was first published in the Lancaster Lit Fest Anthology and is collected in Kathleen Jones’ 2011 poetry collection Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21, published by Templar Poetry. It is reproduced by permission of the author. Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 can be ordered from Templar Poetry.
Tim says: I will be reviewing Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 later this week. I’ll say more then about why I like the collection so much, but let me say now that many of the poems I like best in this collection skilfully evoke both character and place, as this poem does so well. I thrilled to stories of the Roman conquest of Britain, like The Eagle of the Ninth, when I was young – these days, I have a rather different take on imperial adventures and the grandeur that was Rome, but this poem revives the shades of that harsh borderland and its harsh inhabitants.
Kathleen Jones is one of the Tuesday Poets. You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the hub poem in the middle of the page, and all the other poems in the sidebar on the right.