War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

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


Requiem aeternum Michael Green 1957-2015

Michael, in paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.


Michael Green & SMS tasting whisky the night before the premiere of Jeffrey Ryan and SMS’s Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation (November 2012)

I never imagined I would be writing for one of my own personal fallen comrades here. This space has recorded the losses of so many in uniform, but now it is the time to bid adieu to one of my own tribe, the great artist, actor, director, writer, producer, Michael Green. Michael Green, the national treasure. And I told him that several times to his face, and he always said, modestly, “You’re so kind.” But I meant it. Japan makes its beloved master artists national treasures, well Canada should have made Michael one. He was the quintessential cultural treasure, and, frankly, the best of what we are.

Michael was lost to the world on Tuesday, February 11, along with three other distinguished artists: Kainai First Nation elder, scholar and filmmaker Narcisse Blood; Michele Sereda, artistic director of Regina’s Curtain Razors theatre; and Regina-based multidisciplinary artist Lacy Morin-Desjarlais. The loss to their families, the cultural world in our country is tremendous, but this is also a great loss to the CF family as well.

Without Michael, our war requiem, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation would never have happened. Over lunch one day in Calgary, after attending Rem. Day ceremonies in Edmonton, Michael was so moved by what I had to tell him about my witness as a war artist from 2008-2010, that when he heard that I felt compelled to write a war requiem, he felt the war requiem had to happen. On Nov. 13, 2010, Michael listened to my vision and immediately picked up the phone and contacted Heather Slater the artistic director of the Calgary Philharmonic, with whom we met within hours, and within hours the composer had been chosen, Jeffrey Ryan, and in less than two years 270 souls were on stage taking curtain calls to the Standing O of 1700 people. Many in the audience had served in Astan, some driving or flying great distances to be there. Two soldiers from Edmonton whose car slid on black ice and ended in the ditch had the car pulled out and made it on time for the premiere. A young signaller whose officer had been killed in A’stan attended. A young Cpl. flew from Ontario to attend (looking gorgeous in her civvies). Quite a few mothers and fathers and other next-of-kin were there that night. An Afghan thanked me after hearing the Pashto choruses by the children, the requiem was as much for the Afghans as for anyone else. There were few dry eyes in the audience.

The size of the project, with Ann Lewis-Luppino, at the head, was staggering, in terms of finances and logistics. But collectively, we pulled it off. It was a night when our country heard the voices of the soldiers, their next of kin, the ones who love, the children of Afghanistan, and, I hope, heard the price they have all paid and continue to pay. Our country too, heard the call of the past century, from the Great War, Vimy, the Somme to Kandahar. And Michael Green was the reason for it happening. He was the grand clockmaker, winding the clock, then letting us all see it move, a Leviathan of a project, to production. Thank you Michael.

When someone dies, or someone falls in love, they often turn to the poets to help articulate the big feelings. Well this poet is too miserable to write words, profound, or beautiful. I simply cannot grasp that that fun, brave, generous, gorgeous spirit Michael Green is dead, and in such a terrible violent way, in a terrible car accident in our northern land. Someone commented on the television that Michael had “died with his boots on doing what he loved … travelling to another arts project”. There’s cold comfort in this for us. I cannot imagine Michael gone, any more than I can imagine him wearing boots. Because every time I ever saw Michael, he was floating on some beautiful creative cloud. Always a smile. Always generous. Always dreaming up the next amazing project. Requiem aeternum Michael Green, may the chorus of angels be right now spreading their arms to greet you, cause Lord knows, you’ll ask them what they really want to sing, then you’ll find them the most glorious gig under God’s creation.

x

— smsteele


Artist's Statement

The other day I was interviewed by a Majorcan newspaper. I am here for the 12th Robert Graves Conference and the lovely and kind William Graves (RG’s son) tipped off the local newshound that I might make interesting copy. I am very used to being an interesting story – emphasis on the story rather than the poetry (!) – but as always a little cautious. I have been misquoted, or facts been askew so often – more often than not. But this reporter was very good, and other than some clangers, e.g. that I was in Afghanistan for 2 years (!!!), he got 99.9% of the story right. To clarify, I was on the road to war and back with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, over a period of two years, but in Afghanistan at the front only very, very briefly. I would have loved to have been with them the whole time, but I was at that time a good wife and mother and could only take a few weeks away from those duties at a time! Still, I managed to spend thousands of hours with them. I ate with them, slept on the rough prairie ground amongst them, got sick with them, celebrated their personal and collective successes – or rather, observed them – I stood amongst their next-of-kin when they came home, and yes, wept with them. But lest one accuse me of Stockholm syndrome, I say no, human syndrome.

This site was begun in 2008 as a de facto calling card that I could present to the troops when I landed in their training camps as they prepared for the war in Afghanistan. As my country’s first poet to be chosen as an official war artist, I was a slightly suspicious enigma to these soldiers who had had painters amongst them, photographers, sculptors and journalists, but never a poet. What was I doing? What was I writing in that ever-present notebook and why was I taking photographs of everything? Then, what the hell does a poet do, and more to the point, how the hell should they behave in front of this person the Commanding Officer had ordered be given access to anything she wanted, and at the same time, to be kept safe and alive?

This website provided the boys (and this term, unapologetically, includes all the women) with a means for them to understand what I was trying to do. I wanted to be as transparent as possible, and unable to sit with each and every one of the troops and let them see my notebook, the website provided a convenient method of doing so. Whenever I arrived into a camp, or platoon, or section, or Light Armoured Vehicle, the boys were able to run to the blue rockets and google my site and check me out. Once they realized I wasn’t a journalist, that I wasn’t interested in salacious detail, or in getting them jacked up, they felt comfortable with me. I respected them if they did not wish to speak to me, and I never probed deeply for personal information. Perhaps that’s why they told me so much. As the chaplains said to me once, “You are like one of us Suzanne”. But I am not. I have made no pact with God nor the military about the secrets I have been told – only with myself.

What I never expected when I first began this site was that I would continue with it. To date over 130,000 visits have been made. A low number in this googly age, but a HUGE number for a poet of any age – well of a low ranking poet anyway. Thousands and thousands of visitors have been soldiers and their families. Apparently for one father I was a primary source of int on what his son was experiencing, and he thanked me for it. I have had thousands of letters, emails, messages from people – military and otherwise, from around the world. Of all the thousands only a few have been negative, and only one has been profoundly unkind, but this was from a jealous wife of one of the soldiers I accompanied to war, and she was far, far, out of line. I worked hard to keep a professional distance from the soldiers on their road to war. I never called them by their first names, only by their official ranks, and did not fraternize in any way (though a Warrant Officer, very young, very handsome, and very inebriated, once propositioned me – clearly a case of beer goggles!). Once, however, I did stay for two nights at a woman officer’s apartment. She gave me her bedroom while she slept crumpled up on the sofa – but this sort of behaviour is typical of those I encountered – selflessness.

One of the common accusations I have received is that of propagandist. To this I respond by saying that I respect my readers to make their own minds up about the war, about war. I am only a tiny dot on the landscape and my opinion is meaningless. If anyone wants to know what I feel about the war they should listen to Jeffrey Ryan and my Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. I believe the children’s choir singing in Pashto, “I’m so cold” says it all. Further, Canada’s official war artist program is unique in the world. My colleague Dick Averns has made a comparative study of 7 war artist programs and has concluded the same. We are not told what to write or paint or sculpt, or choreograph, or film, where to publish, show etc. The committee that choses us has only one member of the military on it – the rest are academics, curators, senators etc.

To illustrate the uniqueness of this program I always refer to my fellow artist Gertrude Kearn’s startling painting that sits in the middle of the National War Museum’s gallery in Ottawa. It depicts one of our country’s most shameful moments – the torturing to death of a young Somalian teenager in the 1990’s. This painting is uneasy to view, and when I brought a catalogue to the Front in Afghanistan, in which the painting was reproduced, Sgt. Major was upset with it and said it was a bad painting. He did not mean aesthetically. I queried him on his values, and when he said, “Freedom of speech” I responded, “Exactly” and said to him that in my opinion, a grownup country airs its most shameful moments in public. One is, after all, only as sick as one’s secrets, or so they say.

On aesthetics, a criticism I have received often (and it doesn’t bother me), is that my language, my grammar, my use of punctuation etc. on this website, even my poetry, is lousy. I agree. But this is part of the ethos of this website. It is my diary. Few people punctuate, write well etc. in one’s diary. What was important was to “Publish while the boys are still dying” as the great Scottish poet Tom Bryant counselled me at the time. But more to the point, I wanted to publish while the boys were still living.

I am asked all the time if I have published a book, and if so, where can it be bought. I have yet to do so. I have been too busy writing a requiem, a play, (both performed), a doctorate (2/3rds done), two video installations, moving continents, including this Great War project I am leading, and this Great War project I am very, very, proud to say that I am a part of.

Re: a book. I have a wonderful undergraduate student who has collated my work and is beginning to organize it. I have an agent, Ian Arnold who is willing to shop it. But part of me thinks I need it all to simmer for awhile as I struggle to find the form. I am unhappy with the paper and ink solution in many ways, as I prefer to be multimedia. Still, there is something lovely about an artifact called a book. To that end I do have a chapbook of the requiem that can be had. It is handmade, hand sewn by my colleagues from eXegesis, Dr. Jaime Robles and Mike Rose-Steel and is lovely, and I am grateful to them for that.

There are so many I need to thank for the support of this work I have done, and the work I am presently doing as a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter with Professor Tim Kendall and Dr. Joe Crawford (in these two I am most lucky). Most of all I need to thank my daughter, Ella Speckeen, and my aged mother, Eilleen Steele, both of whom encouraged me to continue this work even when circumstances presented that made it at times unendurable. Both had so much to lose should anything happen to me, and yet both said “Finish what you began”, and this includes the doctorate which means I must be far, far away from them both. Of course I thank John MacFarlane, the director of the Canadian Forces Artist program, Col. Jerry Walsh for inviting me on the entire road to war, my beloveds forever Ann and Zola, family (Pam, Poppy, Don, John… it’s a long, long list) and friends across the country, Phil, my guardian angel from OSSIS etc. etc. etc. and of course those who kept me alive. I will name you all elsewhere I promise.

On a final note, Michael Gravel, a fellow poet, amazing colleague, and web designer, made this website for me. At first it was titled Canada’s War Poet, but I asked him to change it as though I am one of Canada’s official war artists, to be called my country’s war poet seems hubristic. I am just a poet whose subject is, among many other things, war.

— smsteele


Lazarus 56 (5 years past war)

where is he now, our Lazarus, dust settled settled… down, down, down. he’s got a life. he’s got a wife. he’s got a job. new uniform! the story is. he’s in the river. facing down down down. he’s in the river. deep and drowned. he could not wear your crown crown crown. he could not wear the thorny, crown, crown, crown.

— smsteele


Mametz Wood 2014 2nd draft

for J

‘the shelling and weathering have “cultivated the land”’
~‘The Flora of the Somme Battlefield’. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. v. 1917, No. 9/10, pp. 297-300

at Mametz Wood under ash and oak,
tangle of rose-bay willow undergrowth
on the prickly bed, no moss, soft, still,
but for foreign birds and hunter gunfire
across the valley called the Somme.

at Mametz Wood I lay, filmed green a sky
Welsh bunting, hives of wild bees, tiny flies,
arms of undergrowth cradled, encased me,
under bantering birds, a dragonfly, the hunters’
thunder across the valley called the Somme.

later, in Peronne I lay, in my hotel bed, your arms
so far far away, soft, green, new,
as undergrowth, Mametz Wood, not mossy, still,
clean as your body, naked lover, next to me,
and I was ​safe from gunfire old and new
across the sky, the valley called the Somme.

— smsteele


Bracelet


TF 3-09 Delta Company Bracelet

some wear poppies, some wear a silver star. today as I attend the ceremony in Green Park, then the reception at the Canadian High Commissioner’s Residence, I will wear this bracelet given to me by the Company Sergeant Major for my work as a war artist, and as a token of friendship. it was a great honour to receive this, as only company members received these. etched onto the plane metal band are the names of the five from DCoy who never made it home. may they rest in peace and may their families find some peace.

five years ago I flew to Kandahar. I spent Nov. 11 in the company of the Governor of Kandahar, the Minister of Defence, and hundreds of soldiers and bodyguards. it was surreal. just as flying into a war zone with 14 next-of-kin was surreal. just as flying into a war zone was surreal. the boardwalk. driving outside the wire with a terp and a young reserve officer. flying in a herc. a whirly-bird. the smell of dry land and the sight of farmers shaking almonds from the trees, beating basil for seed, pomegranates fat and red and ready to be picked. the lavender fins of mountains. and then.

— smsteele

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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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