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2004 competition
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Poetry
 
2004 competition: Highly commended (1 of 11)
 

A.D. 98
Tacitus, in Rome, contemplates Britain

The line where empire ends.

Pause. And the weighty Roman summer
bears on his back.
                             His duty calls up
distance, rain and cold,
Rome at its boundaries, a war
beyond our gods, our roads, our circuses.

Beneath fresh herbs, the smell of rotting fruit
disturbs him. Blood, too, is somewhere in the street.
He wants his farm, country simplicity,
cool breezes. City food’s too rich.
He’s tired of silverware and coloured cloth.

This task detains him. At his call
a slave brings wine and olives, mops his brow.
He sips.
             He needs to know
words in a barbarous tongue, not shaped by Rome.

It comes to this:
A man, on a steep hill, faces death,
prepares to kill. Men are assembled,
weapons grasped. A speech is made.
He needs the words. They know what Rome is,
there, where earth ends.

                                      Pirates
of all the world
... He has it now –
their quaint, unmannered tongue.

                                This pillaging
they dignify as ordered government.

(Can he square that with the Emperor?
“I’m a historian. Besides, my duty ...”
He’ll write a preface; things are better now.)
Still the barbarian speaks. They take a land
and make a wilderness. They call it ‘peace’.


Kathleen Bell