Poetry from Steven Croft

 Sky Burial
 Soldiers all heard the stories, folklore of the shaped-
 charge monster, unbeatable IED, flipped an Abrams
 on its back, the fable goes, until it's like they're
 waiting for it, for today, for the sudden protean
 flower of sand and flame, what a second before
 was the lead vehicle -- now a rain of shrapnel
 against bulletproof glass of Humvees that follow,
 now a fiery-dark windstorm blowing up a desert floor.
 The long second where one's intake of breath stops
 for an under the breath "God," a place where you
 can only watch, in the long second before radio talk
 between vehicles, frantic security halt, bracing
 for secondary IEDs, possible complex attack, in
 that second I imagine three soldiers calm like yogis,
 shamayim all around in the sudden sky, I wonder
 is it a journey to nowhere -- in the long second.
 The recovery team, later, finds nothing, not a piece
 of skin, no bones, nothing to ship home, come back
 with a pretzel-shaped steering wheel they show
 to officers around camp.  And I think, these three
 are burned into the desert now, a Shroud of Turin,
 never going home – home, where a memorial service's
 beauty of flowers is nothing to say goodbye to –
 nothing to cling to but a folded flag.
 Home, where memory of a face, sound of a strong
 voice, are offered as a gift to eternity, grief stopping
 speech, silently -- the idea of a place where loved ones
 continue to be loved needed to let a heart keep beating,
 let lips open to mouth a silent "goodbye."
 One of the peaceful places in Kabul, outside
 the grounds around Embassy Row, an open
 stretch of grass, a few trees, and chalk-colored
 stones, was my convoy's frequent lunch stop,
 pulling the Humvees under the limbs of cedars.
 We'd eat the spicy lamb meat, rolled fajita-like
 in naan bread, then rolled up in the flowing script
 of a daily newspaper and bought by our interpreter
 from his street-vendor cousin, in the shade
 and sound of songbirds.
 The first day there I was glad to stop in this quiet,
 away from the ripe stone street channels of sewage,
 the congestion of busy markets and honking horns,
 past an Afghan checkpoint that kept out most traffic,
 but as Americans we could go anywhere,
 So, I watched the eager sergeant major who'd
 been commanding this Kabul patrol for two months
 unroll the food he was unafraid to eat, in this quiet
 of cedars, wondered if the paper's stories were Pashto
 or Dari, looked at the hazy mountains that ring the city,
 And at the woman in full blue burqa that billowed up
 in gusts of wind as she sat in the high green grass opposite
 the dirt road from us alone.  After a while the interpreter
 took a lamb bolani from the unrolled paper on the hood
 to her, and an arm appeared from the burqa to take it.
 So I asked who she was, and Hashem said she's a widow,
 her husband was an Afghan soldier killed in an outlying
 province.  The next day we fed her again, and I asked
 why she sat here, and Hashem said, "to beg."  The soldiers
 who patrolled let her stay because of her army husband.
 And the next day I wanted to ask where she went nights,
 but part of the purpose of lunch was the mission brief
 by the sergeant major for the rest of the day, so I just
 wondered as SGM Sanchez talked about itinerary
 and ammo counts,
 Imagining a mudbrick house where she was barely
 tolerated by relatives, driven out in the day to beg
 in her blue ghost costume, seen on every woman
 outside the city, but less so here in Kabul.  Every day
 for a month she was there.  One day she was gone.
 Late Friday Night at the VFW Bar
 When beers become gradients of time, gradually
 taking good-natured men at a corner table back
 like years from baseball scores and current politics,
 loosening stories from those lives that led them here,
 to the days when their hearts were full of darkness.
 An Iraq vet recalls firecracker sounds of small arms fire
 from windows, the flip flop clomping of tank treads
 as it pulled up and wound its turret, its round devouring
 a building's walls, turbaned men thrown like dolls, falling
 with collapsed masonry over the sandy street.
 A Vietnam vet tells of sudden ambush in a delta fertile
 with green trees and rice paddies, unloading magazines,
 afterwards finding his spent casing sprinkled over a buddy,
 and when he kneeled down to brush them off, saw
 his own reflection in his stilled friend's staring eyes.
 These are men who can conjure violent figures,
 in nightmare worlds where all options seem bad,
 where no parables are found that guarantee survival,
 only heroes that may have saved a buddy's life
 to die themselves in a mutilation of any happy ending.
 Last call, and they rise from their stories, glancing
 at the American flag tacked to the wall beside a reflective
 Michelob sign, and it gives some relief, some meaning
 as they head for the door under the red exit sign, outside
 to lead normal lives and keep terrible secrets.
 The Ironised Voice of the Soldier's Ghost, 500 Years
 After His Desertion
 "A skeleton was discovered with sword and knives under the old
 Dubingiai bridge in Lithuania's Lake Asveja. Scientists with Vilnius
 University examined the body and said that the person was male and
 died in the 16th century, though they don't yet know why he died."
 --November 12th, 2020
 I expected to lie down in battle by the bodies of men, the dark
 folding me as death already folded them.
 Bemused by the play of light on ripples I tripped awkwardly
 on the bridge, my inner eye looking for my heroic future.
 The shock of the cold water was like a klaxon cry as my armor sank me
 into this ethereal world.
 These five hundred years below water, only fishermen's boats appeared
 disappeared by day above in the distance.
 At night, well above me pinwheels of stars spun their ancient patterns,
 But in the gloom I never saw them.
 Mourner's eyes be pools of sorrow for loyal knights who die
 for the kingdom, unlike these eager eyes that now pick and measure.
 With what is left of me I tell you my pain was not in death or drowning
 but that no blow flies came to buzz and whisper:
 "You are dead on the field of battle" -- embarrassment my pain,
 like the water it still saturates me.
 June 4, 1937
 Picasso adds the last thing to Guernica
 a light bulb gives unity to chaos:
 bodies bend and bruise
 wrack and burn
 scream at the sky
 sword broken
 baby dead
 arms outstretched
 The highest figure the bull
 still on its feet
 tail floating
 like Luftwaffe
 in the sky above
 People forever trampled in firebomb winds
 of shrapnel, Basque victims
 of other people's wars
 A light stays on forever
 lest we forget

A US Army combat veteran, Steven Croft lives happily on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia on a property lush with vegetation and home to various species of birds and animals. His poems have appeared in Liquid Imagination, The Five-Two, Ariel Chart, Eunoia Review, Anti Heroin Chic, Synchronized Chaos, and other places, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. 

2 thoughts on “Poetry from Steven Croft

  1. Steven, these poems are haunting, something I don’t usually read since I abhor war and would abolish it if I could with a wave of a magic want. But these poems speak volumes of lived experience. I can’t imagine being a soldier but these help me. How did you get caught up in war? The one about The Widow is so touching. I followed the link and read your poems in North of Oxford about life in Georgia long ago. There’s a sadness in these poems. I hope your poetry helps you work through your experience and brings to light what is inside. I write to explore ideas I’m thinking about and to entertain, provide escape. I don’t consider myself a poet since the long form is what I write, but poetry helps me tell small stories. You are a poet. Thank you.

  2. Marjorie, if you don’t consider yourself a poet, I am sure I would like your other writing because your poetry is particularly good in my opinion. There is a lot of brutality in our world and when I was younger I just expected the US would enter some new war, and did not feel I could just watch it on television. Maybe this is a male thing, though more women are joining the military now than ever before. I was teaching at a small college and in the Army National Guard (for the reason above) when 9/11 occurred. I can’t forget going into McDonald’s in my Army uniform and ordering a few days after 9/11 and being told by the manager who gave me my order, “You don’t owe us any money.” All we can do is hope for and do everything we can to make a better world. Rural South Georgia can be lonely, but as a poet, I guess I kind of like lonely — Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” makes great sense to me. Here’s an essay by a fellow South Georgian and friend of mine about rural life, and by the way, I’m sure I saw some of the points she develops in the essay in your great poems.

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