Four Poems

The Screech of Gulls

Tarawa, 23 November 1943
Three days of battle leave a brutal lull.
As rot relieves the smoke—and spades, the rot—
we brace ourselves to face a screech of gulls.
They burst on Red Beach 3 like flak to cull
the choicest meats and eat them dripping hot.
No battle was more brutal than this lull.
They squabble as they scrape at bones and skulls.
Their ash-white bellies turn to bandage blots.
Some slick-sleeve private screeches at the gulls.
A corpsman says, This is unnatural.
Given the circumstances, I think not.
Too many days of battle feed this lull.
We kill the bastards by the barrelful.
They send reserves to shred those we had shot.
At least our fire drowns out the screech of gulls.
Worst is the way they stare at us, eyes dull
as rounds and no more careless of our lot.
When will the battle end this brutal lull
and bring me men, not screeching, gorging gulls?

The Emperor of Mexico

Querétaro, Mexico, 19 June 1867
They bring him to the Hill of Bells,
            his hands untied,
his floppy hat held loosely at his side,
behind his two most trusted generals.
To one he offers soothing words;
the other, his place in the center.
He tips the firing squad, then he defers
to the captain so their justice can be rendered.
He is the Emperor of Mexico,
and he would die as he has lived: composed.
Of course he thinks them thankless fools.
            He still believes
this mob will never know democracy
unless they have a knowing king to rule.
He should condemn the monarchists 
for not accepting his reforms 
except the Liberals always gave the fist 
to all he did to stave off civil war. 
He is the Emperor of Mexico,
and he would die as he has lived: opposed. 
Slowly the captain lifts his sword;
            the squad, their guns.
He tells himself, You had the chance to run,
but unlike peasants, kings must stay their course.
Napoleon recalled his troops;
he would not deign to follow them.
The city under siege, he would not stoop
to leave off hope and leave his last, best men.
He is the Emperor of Mexico,
and he would die before he lived deposed.
 In all he has just one regret.
            His broken wife
had begged the Continent to save his life.
Such risks, wives fail to see, kings must accept.
The squad takes aim, and he takes heart.
He will be judged by history,
and once these rebels tear his state apart,
they will regret their misspent loyalty.
He is the Emperor of Mexico,
and, waiting, cries out, "Viva Mexico!"

A Turkish Fairy Tale

The Syrian Desert, July 1915
Maybe it happened, maybe not:
Thousands of women dragged from home,
expecting to be stabbed or shot,
but forced instead to build a road,
their corpses used for cobblestones.
The soldiers drove them through their thirst
and wastes of weariness and, worst,
only the rapes broke up the days
until each lay in untilled dirt, 
another bit of desert paved.
Or they, according to the Turks,
deserted husbands, vainly searched
for better lives and simply got
what wayward wives know they deserve.
Maybe it happened, maybe not.

The Yankee Jacket

Boston, 16 December 1773
John Malcolm, customs agent for the Crown—
            we brace ourselves to face a screech of gulls.
            which really means the Company—
            we brace ourselves to face a screech of gulls.
            fears for his skin at the first sound
            of natives stomping towards the quay:
            the Sons of Drunken Liberty.
            Given his duties, he has worn
            a Yankee jacket once before,
           a garment that his salary
           will not let him again afford.
He has no shares in any colonies.
Hiding behind a cart, he sees the crowd
           relieve three ships of all their tea,
           dozens of crates, hundreds of pounds 
           worth thousands to the Company,
           an act too brazen to believe.
           Despite their talk, he would have sworn
           they simply would have charged aboard
           and brayed till they were forced to flee.
           The Company expects no more
from those with no shares in the colonies.
“That rage,” he thinks, “that will, they won’t be bound,
           but if I’m found, Christ, I might be.
           They’ll toss me with those crates to drown.”
           He cranes his neck, tries hard to breathe
           and looks for some way off the quay.
           The crowd breaks into separate swarms,
           which briefly lets an alley form,
           his only chance to reach the street.
           He bolts. Some howl. Some point. All storm
the man, the least share due the colonies.
He shrieks and struggles as his clothes are torn
           away and he is lapped with scorn.
           He tastes the pitch pots’ smoke and reek.
           Everyone snorts as Malcolm warns,
“The fate you’ll share with all the colonies!”


About Stephen S. Power

Stephen S. Power has had work published in Blue Unicorn, The Lyric, Measure and Raintown Review, as well as Barefoot Muse, Contemporary Sonnet, Pennsylvania Review and many other journals. A senior editor at the publisher Wiley, he works on sports, history, science and pop culture books. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey and tweets at @stephenspower.