War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Lazarus 57

We were war crazy, Lazarus,
the eve we slipped under the blanket
of winter Solstice. Angel choirs sang
‘O Holy Night’ in Saint Albert, & cornmeal snow
swish-chh’ed swish-chh’ed with every snow-shoe click
along the track we laid beside the frozen lake.

Elk Island was pregnant then with wolf-watch.
& we brewed espresso, ate grapes, dark chocolate,
laid traps for joy in the icy wake we made, as snow angels
we looked up, up, up at the black corbeau
circling, told us, the one lost in the desert, Andrew, was okay.

Wolves blinked cool and amber while the ancestors’
night-vision-green/sparkly fingertips stretched across the skies,
they, aurora borealis, looked down upon us, and blessedly smiled.

— smsteele

Notes from PhD Land: Up to London to meet our new Prime Minister

I am frequently invited to an astonishingly wide variety of places because of my work as a war artist and my research on the Great War. Last spring, for example, I was under Vimy Ridge in the tunnels and souterrains_ with British munitions experts and archeologists from the Durand Group. I was looking at the thousands of pieces of graffiti and carvings made by Canadian soldiers from 1917 onward.

Last week I was invited to Canada House in London to meet our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The crowd consisted of approx. 150 and ranged from an Admiral to bankers to consultants to functionaries to scholars to artists (this list not necessarily reflecting societal worth!). In the last stages of the PhD, I found this trip to London to be a great relief. It was wonderful to be amongst such creative Canadians living over here and to meet the new PM. There was a joyous atmosphere that day as Trudeau articulated our country’s values. It was oddly like a renewal of vows stating, This is who we are. There are approx. 250,000 Canadians over here. Astonishing, yet not astonishing. Opportunities abound for us over here. The UK has been very, very good to me, filled with opportunities, including the award to come here and do my doctorate. But I want to come home. I will come home.

I missed the 11 November ceremony and reception at Canada House this year due to illness. Because of this I hadn’t seen the new installation commemorating our Afghan war dead that sits in the foyer of Canada House, Lest We Forget. The installation is part of a fundraising memorial project sponsored by the Veterans Transition Network and consists of individual squares, rather like a large mosaic, that pieced together, present a montage. I was startled to realise that each square had the names of military personnel KIA, and that I was literally standing in front of the 12 who died with Task-Force 3-09, all of with whom I spent time on Ex or in theatre. I later searched the website for the project and couldn’t find any information about the artist who designed the project, nor if the NOK were in involved with the project. I took pictures of those squares that have the names of the five from Delta Coy, the ones I knew best. I was going to send the photos to the mothers but decided against it because I don’t know if they were involved in the project, and if not, they might be startled.

The Veterans Network is helping military pers. transition towards wellness. Recently I learned that one of the CIED naval divers with TF 3-09 has become a yoga instructor having left the service. I know this man and when I read his story was sad to learn of his struggles after returning home from war. Yoga, he says, in a newspaper article, saved his life. I’ve seen photos of him and he looks so well, so happy. We lost touch when I came to England. I hope that organisations commemorate the return to health and well-being in works of art as well as those of memorial. Not instead of, but as well. Our war narrative needs to be broad and deep. I hope I have, in part, contributed to this.

— smsteele

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


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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