We stand and pledge ourselves body and soul
to make an enemy of the North Wind -
of all the sky-clad opponents we face,
this landscape is by far the cruellest.
We pace out the square of the watchtower.
Stars dig holes in their inked field to bury
us in a casket of darkness as we guard
this out-post far from home, far from certain.
Even the trees here tilt their stalwart branches
from the assault, their place on the bristling
ground held clenched against the howling of hordes,
the hundred tiny knife-points of hoarfrost.
We keep watch. The bitter chill at the end
of the world marks our point of no return.
About the poem
This poem was published in The Dawn Treader in January 2018.
One of my favourite field trips for my MA dissertation on Ancient Britain and the Roman invasion was a visit to Newcastle to see one of my best friends, Nisha, and visit Hadrian’s Wall. As part of that trip, we visited the Roman Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum with her two children, Grace and Harry.
This poem was inspired by an interactive exhibit allowing you to make the standard pledge to join the Roman Army. Harry got involved and Grace wandered away saying she didn’t want to join the army and leave home. That same day I stood with Harry at a guard post at Vindolanda; we waved at Nisha and her daughter at the next post along and looked out on the landscape. I asked Harry what he thought it would be like to be a Roman soldier guarding VIndolanda at night. He didn’t speak about battles or attacking tribes, but imagined it would be cold and lonely. That experience – Grace even refusing to imagine leaving home for the army and Harry imagining the loneliness of standing guard at what the Romans believed was the end of the world – were the inspiration for this poem.
The poem is in a loose sonnet structure because of the small square of space each soldier would have to pace around while they were on guard duty and the inescapable commitment of being signed up to the army. The Romans’ decision to mark Hadrian’s Wall as the end of the known world made me think also of other barriers, other ways that the world can end and I imagined what it would be like to stand in those places, too, signed up to something you can’t quite understand.