War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Six years ago

Margie rolls up my sleeve
alcohol rubs, inoculates me:
tentanus, typhus, denge fever,
polio, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR),
diphtheria-pertussis, varicela,
Hep A and Hep B,
& the new kid on the block:
H1N1 flu vacine,
then she gives me Wurthers toffee,
says I’m G2G, ready for flight.

But Margie, you forgot the innoc
that would prevent the shock
of jealousy, envy, faithlessness,
PTSD, despair, cowardice
on the home front, and need.

— smsteele


Rounding the final bend of the doctorate and looking forward to the next step. Currently I have a major manuscript in motion, Infantry Lessons: a poet’s road to war. I get so many requests for my work but I have not had the time to collate, review etc. as I began the doctorate while writing Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation with the composer Jeffrey Ryan (2012). Speaking of the requiem, watch this space. One of the movements was recently sung/played in Chicago. I would like to see it come to the U.K. in 2017.

I am hoping to have the manuscript, Infantry Lessons, ready within six months and my agent will be handling it. I’ve had several publishers interested in it, but still have not decided how I want to roll it out. A young editor is currently working with the manuscript and I have several readers lined up to review it. To be honest, I needed some perspective on the work. Most of my work was written in situ and was thus reactive. It will be interesting to revisit it once I finish the doctorate.

Thank you for continuing to visit the site. Thank you, as always, to Michael Gravel my incredible, patient, and kind web designer and web master. None of this could have happened without his professionalism and keen sense of design.

— smsteele

I knew you in this dark (before Afghanistan)

(for Lt Andrew Nuttall, d. 23 December, 2009 Panjwai)

They seek me, reach me, your next-of-kin,
that I might have caught shadows of you

with words woodcut, blocked, crosshatched,
ink to bring you back. But mine are blunt

crude digital shortcuts. Not even onionskin
or sturdy stock to fold into anything useful—
a tissue for weeping, an origami crane
to be fashioned into a funeral program.

I cannot bring back your tallness, blond hair,
scrappy WWx moustache, or you so cut (!)
stripped to the waist lifting weights at dusk.

Nor half-life of sunset CUBs with the OC,
the RSM, the brothers. Nor you pulling out your field book
taking down orders, reading us your careful notes.

— smsteele

The Men With Broken Faces

The Men With Broken Faces is my colleague Dr Marjorie Gehrhardt’s book that has just been published today. This book is a major addition to our understanding of the First World War, and while the subject is difficult, the disfigured soldier, it is a very, very important story to hear.

The nature of trench warfare (in a flat landscape), mechanised warfare, and metal helmets (ironically that could shatter and shear off faces), all contributed to hundreds of thousands of facially-wounded men (and women) in the war. The results were devastating. Disfigured soldiers, for example, were put in wards with the blind at the back of ships on their route back home from the war. Once in England, specialised hospitals took care of these patients, and in one village, Sidcup, blue benches signified to the townsfolk that disfigured soldiers were there, and that one would approach the benches knowing this. Men literally could not “face” their families with such devastating disfigurement. The result of this was incredible innovation in maxillofacial procedures which we continue to benefit from directly to this day. These include skin grafting, reconstruction of faces using bone grafts, and the use of artists in the surgical suites etc. Socially, these often isolated soldiers, formed strong bonds, published their own magazines and newspaper, and formed social support groups.

As an aside, I have met soldiers who served in Afghanistan who have benefited directly from the experiences of the men with broken faces. Any civilian who has had any maxillofacial surgery (cleft palate, jaw repair, and even facial transplants) is a recipient of the innovation of the Great War surgeons and artists who worked as teams. This is a very important story, and a fascinating story and Dr. Gehrhardt is a leading expert in the field. Well done Dr. Marjorie Gehrhardt! I am so proud to call you my colleague, and collaborator on an article concerning a Canadian and the men with broken faces!

— smsteele

sniper lesson #10

this is the slow dance
tonight, in tall grass
prairie slender,
silence of grace, such
move-less-ness. Breathe
breathe, dust to this
dust, lie slow, lie fast.
O earth, o belly-brace.
Go to ground, down
down, I watch, you
nervy, touch your
tingly face. I wait.

— smsteele

Notes from PhD Land: Under the Battlefields of the Great War

Last week I had the great privilege to be taken into the souterrains of the Great War battlefields in Northern France with the Durand Group.
A team of archeologists, historians, and former EOD experts, with years of experience in conflict zones both within Great Britain, and without, allowed me to accompany them into Maison Blanche, a First World War billet in an old underground chalk quarry, then into the Goodman subway leading into the tunnels from behind the lines towards the front at Vimy Ridge. My purpose was twofold: to look at the hundreds of pieces of carvings and graffiti left primarily by Canadian soldiers to see what narrative I might read there, and to look at faces carved and depicted by soldiers. This latter quest was part of our ongoing research following the 1914FACES2014 project that I have been attached to these past 2 1/2 years.

The experience with the Durand group was one that will take a long time to digest. Perhaps I’ve been in this war business for too long, but while I was impressed by the graffiti I saw, I was less moved emotionally than I had expected. What I saw were not signatures predicting impending death, but rather, signatures, graffiti, carving, that spoke of vitality and young male life. There were, at least for me, no ghosts down there in the souterrains. Perhaps because they were transit tunnels and temporary billets, I could not smell fear there in the narrow carved corridors and the cramped caverns. Maybe it was because the souterrains represented shelter, temporary safety.

The Durand group have photographed and catalogued over 3000 pieces of graffiti and carvings and they report that they have never found any graffiti or carvings overtly protesting the war, the conditions (miraculous given the soldiers’ favourite pastime!), against the military hierarchy (ditto!), or against the Germans. What they have found includes: religious; poetry; humour; sexual (boys will be boys); many, many regimental badges; masonic; doodles and remembrance (A. Hawkins 2012).

While at Maison Blanche, I met General (retired) Rick Hillier and a desert diver who had been in Afghanistan, then the next day I had the chance to go onto Goodman subway with a family from Ontario who had come to see their great-Grandfather’s graffiti that he had made while on his way towards fighting at Vimy in 1917. The 1917 soldier, age 27, had survived the war having been shot in the neck, and having been given 57 hard days labour and a session with a Catherine wheel for being drunk in the trenches (can anyone blame him?), came home to Canada and raised 7 children. One of those children’s children’s children had a chance to see his ancestor’s signature there in the dark tunnel deep under Vimy Ridge.

on a personal note: I’m in the last stages of the PhD and am beyond tired. I returned from France having been underground and with the Durand boys for 6 days (they were the best of hosts), then three days in beautiful, beautiful Amiens, where I gave a paper on Michael Longley and ‘The Tin Noses Shop’, and attended the opening of the 1914FACES2014 exhibit at L’Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne. I had a major installation in the exhibit, my film Champs de Visions/Fields of Vision/Blickefelder, which a was very exciting prospect- they have never exhibited contemporary art.

Unfortunatly, L’Historial did not understand the basic premise of the installation (light, projection, loop, dark room, sound, lots of sound of birdsong and gunfire all shot in situ in the battlefields, the woods (Mametz, Thiepval), the cemeteries, the wildflower and corn fields in all weather) and presented my work as if it was a badly edited travel film. It was embarrassing to see my work so utterly desecrated. C’est la vie I suppose when one is dealing with a museum whose director shrugged his shoulders last year when I asked him where the Canadian presence was in the museum (there was representation of British, African, Indian, Australian, German, American etc. etc. but no Canadian, not even a soldier’s button) and who said to me, “Well we couldn’t include everybody.” I was stunned, having just visited some of the thousands and thousands of Canadian graves that surround his village. Canadian boys whose remains lie in the ground so far from home. I suppose theirs wasn’t a great enough contribution to warrant a nod in one of the “most important” Great World museums in France. Hmmm.

Alors, c’est la vie n’est-ce pas?

— smsteele

a young vet bids adieu to a old vet

I had a message come in from one of the young vets. One of his elders, a Second World War veteran, has died. The young veteran wrote, It’s the first funeral I’ve ever been to for an old guy. This young vet has been to ramp ceremonies or funerals for 35 of his comrades and friends by the age of 27.

We are watching the last of the greatest generation leave us. The more I read about them, the more I remember them and their stories, the more I truly do believe they were the greatest. These were kids who grew up in the Depression, signed up for the war, fought in unbelievably harsh circumstances, came home and raised all of us.

What will millennials say of us fifty years hence? I wonder.

— smsteele

Notes from PhD Land

It’s been a long time since I wrote so I thought I’d catch folk up to date. I’m in the latter part of the PhD and have submitted a first draft titled Reading Between the Lines: the Ethics and Aesthetics of the Great War Narrative. I’m looking at the ideas of truth, process and form in the work of Robert Graves, Mary Borden, and David Jones. I chose these three narratives of the First World War for a number of reasons, but am primarily looking at Graves and truth, Borden and the process of entering a war zone, and Jones for his spectacular book-length poem In Parenthesis because of his negotiation with form. The genesis of this was my own experience with 1PPCLI on their road to war, from 2008-2010. What I am doing with this is looking at how the Great War was written and have concentrated on these three writers because all were poets and I wanted to think of how I could possibly write what I have observed. This incredible experience of researching this thesis continues to inform how I think about war and what happens to the artist and their practice when entering the zone of war (not the war zone alone).

As with the Patricias (and for PPCLI and the war artist program I shall always be grateful), this PhD gift (thank you University of Exeter for inviting me and for giving me the incredible award) has taken me the most amazing places these past 3 3/4 years, and has introduced me to the most incredible people. The opportunities Exeter has afforded me are amazing, both as an artist and a “renewed” scholar (I’ve been away from university for 20 years). The experiences have been as diverse as lunching on regimental silver with Generals and Colonels in the ancient dining room of the Royal Fusiliers in the Tower of London after attending the Remembrance ceremony at Westminster Cathedral with all the Regiments, to being invited to receptions at Canada House on Trafalgar Square, to viewing the art work of combatants just home from A’stan, to forming and working with a collective eXegesis on installations (including last year’s The Long Goodbye: a conversation across a century), reading at the StAnza international poetry festival, back to the BBC mothership in London again, presenting at Oxford etc. etc. etc. Most recently I gave a paper on Ford Madox Ford’s 1st World War novel Parades End in London at King’s College. I’m not a Fordie and was terrified that the convenor of my panel was the world expert on Ford, Max Saunders, but he was very generous and kind, as was another colleague, Andrew Frayne, another Fordie, both of whom I disagreed with in my paper (albeit a gentle, minor disagreement). They were both amused, I think, by the newbie’s take on Ford.

One of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences has been my great luck to be invited to participate in the 1914FACES2014 France/UK research project into the cultural legacy of the disfigured soldier. This work has taken me to France a number of times and has introduced me to the work of Dr. Bernard Devauchelles and Dr. Sylvie Teselin, two of the maxillofacial surgeons who performed the first half-face transplant in 2005. This very intense (subject wise) study of the facially disfigured soldiers and their treatment has produced a huge body of original work towards which I am so grateful to have been able to contribute. A book of this research will be coming out in late 2015. I am the literary consultant to the project, Named Collaborator is my title! Yes, quite a title. Dr. Marjorie Gerhardt and I will be publishing an article in 2016 on some very exciting findings that we have made together. Professor David Jones of Exeter, English project lead, curator Cristina Burke-Trees, and Dr. Marjorie Gerhardt have been incredible colleagues, and I’ll be forever grateful to David for inviting me to come along on the fantastic research project.

Another outcome of this doctorate has been the advent of my work as a video/sound installation artist. My latest, a 34 minute loop of footage from the battlefields of France and Belgium, is titled Champs de visions/Field of visions/Blickfelder: a meditation of the consequences of landscape. On my trips to France for the project and seeing the landscape, flat as our gorgeous prairies, I realized that combatants had little chance other than to hold forth, and hope to hell not to get hit by shrapnel. (I saw pieces of First World War shrapnel this past week at the Aftermaths conference at Kings College, all of it dug out of soldiers’ bodies, it is VERY clear how combatants’ faces could be utterly destroyed by rebounding bits of steel). I had read how narrow the soldier vision was, constricted to trenches, and how the sky, the weather, became major sources of solace, or interest, or their de facto experience of the war (besides the earth/mud/canvas) and decided to film skywards and lying on my back. I filmed in trenches at Beaumont Hamel, and in Mametz Wood and Theipval I lay on the forest floor and shot skyward, as I did at Vimy Ridge, in the German cemetery at Bray-Sur-Somme, at Isaac Rosenberg’s grave, in the corn fields in the rain, in the wild flower fields of France. I used only ambient sounds. The birdsong was incredible and I actually had to lower their decibels in the final edit!

Originally intended to be projected outdoors against the huge clock tower, I switched locale for the 24/7 projection of the film loop (because the only 6000 lumen projector in town was rented out!) and projected on a white wall inside the university chapel. I projected it adjacent to the roll call of 1914-18 students from Exeter who never made it home. A very nice and unexpected outcome of this installation site was that one could see the colours of the film through the gauzy windows of the chapel. All of which interests me even more in the idea of colour and colour installation. The more I work as an artist, the more I seem to reach for the lesser is greater.

Whenever I speak at conferences, give readings or interviews etc., I am asked Do you have a book? And I have to say, Not yet. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that I went directly from writing the war requiem to the doctorate. But a more likely answer is that I have needed to think this experience through. Do I write a slim volume of poetry? Which poems? Or prose? How much “truth” can I tell, how shall I tell it, should I tell it? Thus the subject of the doctorate – the ethics and aesthetics (how I tell it, what form) – of my thesis.

This little bulletin only scratches on the surface of the past 3 3/4 years. I have had tremendous support, #1 from my daughter and my mother and family and friends who urge me to keep going. I would like to thank my supervisors Professor Tim Kendall and Dr. Joe Crawford for their patience and encouragement, and my very generous fellow PhD researchers who are also so generous. I have learned so much from these folk, many of them a few decades younger!

I must say that rarely a few days goes by without someone from TF 3-09 being in touch with me. This is incredible. I am pleased to say that Greenman is getting married! Some of those who went over have died at their own hand. This is the huge tragedy. But most have returned and thrived and have gone on to rewarding lives. One young Captain has left the service and is now a commercial pilot. Others have remained in the army. A number have retired. To all of them, I am grateful for how much they let me see their army lives. And of course, I am grateful that they kept me alive.

— smsteele


Suzanne Steele

WarPoet.ca is one of smsteele's Canadian Forces Artist Program projects. Through text, audio, images, video and contributions by Canada's military personnel, warpoet.ca examines and records the contemporary Canadian war experience. More →


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