Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
6 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:01pm

The Robin’s Funeral

A new poem by Steven O’Brien.   

By Steven O’Brien

*/

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                          
               staff car
To pass.
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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

His mates’ voices are also blunted
And good job too.
Their jokes would be like smirking in
                the pews,
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
                a second,
The lowering sun strikes a spark from his                               
               cap badge.

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.

Content from our partners
Cyber security is a team game
Why consistency matters
Community safety includes cyber security

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                             
              replies.

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