Somewhere behind the lines at Picardy
In a glimmer-field of snow
Three Munster Fusiliers dig out the road.
See them from far off, ponying and laughing
at their toil
As if in a scene from Brueghel.
Foil-lit, the owl moon rises
While they shovel a way for the brigadier’s
An altar cloth has been whicked
Across the treeless plain
And no owls will hunt tonight.
The north wind peels
In a church-song whisper
Of tin on the tongue.
Verses of chapped fingers
And thorny wire.
Private James O’Brien’s regaling is snuffed
Dull-swabbed from his mouth
For there are no echoes here.
His mates’ voices are also blunted
And good job too.
Their jokes would be like smirking in
Or tearing to shreds the white wishes
Of a Christmas card from home,
And after all, snow makes clean.
So, in the stopped-watch landscape
They go on, listening for the chime
Of metal on gravel.
When James stiffens in his rhythm for
The lowering sun strikes a spark from his
And rising he glimpses the flash
Of a fallen robin on the bank of snow,
Its feet crooked and its wings furled.
He picks up the bird at the instant of its death
A blushed-brown thumb of feathers
In his cracked palm.
What conference ensues
In the trench they have made
As the short day bleeds into the night,
Is forever lost,
But as they stand above the icy parapet
They reverse their shovels.
In a grave no bigger than a matchbox
The cold robin is interred
And three young Munster Fusiliers
Go through the drill for the fallen.
By the foot of a ragged tree
The sergeant watches them
As they shoulder the long wooden handles
And give a dumb-show volley.
When they return in frost-stiffened khaki
Like scarified hiemal ghosts
He gives them a scourging.
“I will see you in Paradise,” James O’Brien
Steven O’Brien is a poet, novelist, academic and editor of the London Magazine.
This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe