War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

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


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

National War Memorial

cowardice, pure cowardice, to shoot, to kill one of our young citizen soldiers, a reservist, on duty at our National Memorial. a memorial dedicated to our forebears that took up arms in defence of Canada and the world’s safety in the realm of disaster response in Haiti, Pakistan, Sri Lanka… a real warrior would never, ever be so cowardly as to kill like this. cowardice, pure cowardice.

I have spent thousands of hours with reservists who train, show up, do what they are asked to do, put their lives in danger, all in their spare time, often with little recognition. my sincere condolences to this soldier’s family and loved ones.

— smsteele

lazarus 55

‘Christ is washing the feet of his company’
~from ‘Trench Foot’, Michael Longley

somewhere, out there, on the edge
of war, none of that damned dun
dust, just ice, the cleanliness of snow

I took your hand, watched you
breathe again, inhale Canadian air
exhale the fatigues of war.

In 1917, a poet’s NCO-father talced
feet, papered his men’s trench-swilled
boots, boots grown grisly in muck

every week was holy week then
as it was for you, priest with a basin,
you cooled, calmed, the boys’ blistering fears;

then, later, after war, a thousand kisses
fall, fresh snowfall from the base of my spine
to the top of my neck

in the mountains,
little sachets of lemon, tart and sweet
washed clean our broken wounds.

— smsteele

For VP on their centenary

for my beloved Patricias, who brought me home alive

I sing the song of a century Patricias,
born in white hot war I sing the song
for the furnace of craters, trench, mortar,
and roaring northern lights set
into the fire-power of night
across Flanders, across France,
through which you were born,
and I sing to you, wild flower transplants
Prairie boys who held the line
knew how to fight though it
so far from blond wheat fields
the open prairie, our sea-to-sea
to-sea country, of endless skies
where brown hawks herald spring,
and the curve of the earth is visible
to the naked eye, so far away
from the narrow band of light
above the trench of Ypres,
Arleux, Frezenberg Hill
Bellewaarde, Passchendaele, Mont Sorrel,
Amiens, The Somme, o The Somme.
Scarpe, Fleurs-Courcelette,
The Hindenberg Line,
Ancre, Heights Canal du Nord Arras,
Pursuit to Mons Vimy, Siberia.

I sing the song of 1939 to 45,
Sicily and Europe,
the long hard spine of fight
o weary rain and mud, weary
snow and heat
I sing of The Moro, The Gully, Leonforte,
Agira, then the merciless Hitler, Gothic, Rimini
Lines, and San Fortunato, Savio Bridgehead,
Naviglio Canal, Fosso Munio, Granarolo;
I sing Patricias, the song of flowers, strewn
by children,
that mend, that tend your brothers’ graves,
so that you will never be alone,
though silent, so far, so far from home
you will never be alone again.

I sing the song of Kapyong. 1950-54.
Of Patricias who barely took a breath
after war, before grabbing kit again,
weapons, rucks, marching
—tho Patricias disdain marching,
“Leave it to the RCRs” you say—
into swamps, humidity,
the noose of surround at Hill 677
where against all odds, you held the line.
I sing the song of fifty years later,
when you, old men, dined remembered
your dead through your glasses of wine
in the Legion. And you
remembered your live,
Korea brass on your chest,
Sgt., CO, private, Major,
you were one, all one again.

Then peace, if a song can be
sung then surely this is it
but is it what we think it is?
Germany, The Cold War, Cyprus,
Israel, Golan, Egypt,
Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Congo,
Vietnam, Central America,
Angola, Somalia, Rwanda,
O Rawanda. Yes, Patricias
Some of us have heard, know the cost of those.
There are no chocolates and roses
keeping peace, not in Croatia,
not in Bosnia, not in Medak Pocket.
To bear peace means to carry arms,
To carry the heavy load again.
Witness the Patricia gone to ground
in 98, after Bosnia, found, he was decorated
by the Colonel of the Regiment
at Whistler in 2010. Watch him stand straight
for the first time in two decades, proud
to be a Patricia again.

Then Afghanistan. O the song
Of Afghanistan,
the dusty, broken land
Of lapus lazuli skies, villages,
The fields of grape vines,
And pomegranates that bleed
Sweet and tart, and seed
Courage in our hearts,
I sing of Panjwaii, KAF
I sing of Kandahar, Spin Boldak,
Tarnak Farm, Balunday,
I sing of Anaconda, Apollo,
Medusa, Falcon’s Summit,
The Whale’s Back, Sangin,
Achilles, Hover, Moshtarak,
And I sing of the ones, especially
The boys I knew, who could not
Come home again. I sing for you.

I sing the song of your century
I sing now that the lilacs of spring
have passed, and summer is full,
I sing your century,
as you march pass—
Flanders to Kandahar,
The marguerite in full bloom.

SMSteele, Canadian War Artist Task-Force 3-09

— smsteele

The Long Goodbye:a conversation across a century

Today, at the University of Exeter, UK, eXegesis, the collective I am a member of, is unveiling The Long Goodbye: a conversation across a century (TLG), our Great War commemorative project. eXegesis is made up of Dr. Jaime Robles, Mike Rose-Steel, and myself, SMSteele. This is our 6th installation, collaboration.

Six months in the making, and funded by the Exeter Annual Award, eXegesis held workshops, and “main-streeters”, inviting the public to write letters, poetry, or sketches, on postcards, back to 1914. These postcards have been designed by the poet/artist Dr. Jaime Robles, with images kindly lent to us by the British Red Cross, the Royal Institute of the Blind, the British Society of Friends (Quakers), Cambridgeshire Council, the University of St. Mark and St. Mary (Plymouth), Mr. Peter Faulkner, Mrs. Lizzie Sherwood, and the Artists’ Rifles, as well as images from the Canadian National Archives, and the British Library.

The goal of the project was to approach the Great War narrative from a different point of view. Recognizing that much of our Great War remembrance focusses on grief, loss, despair, directed by communal cues such as images of poppies, trenches, the stereotypical Tommy, etc., we decided to look at the lives of all who lived through the times, rather than the deaths and suffering. We wished to recognize that though there was unprecedented suffering and loss, the Great War was also a time of enfranchisement for many, and a time of tremendous growth in some fields. By pulling together and participating collectively, and stepping out of one’s daily life, our team historian, Dr. Richard Batten believes a ‘participatory democracy’ began. Certainly here in Britain.

For many, the war offered opportunity, escape, mobility, and yes, though highly unfashionable to say, adventure. We met a woman at one of our “mainstreeters” whose Grandmother had left her 5 year old in the care of her mother, and who went off to be a bus conductor in London. She had, her granddaughter told us, “a Good War”. Another granddaughter of another woman, lent us images from her grandmother’s 1918 anatomy sketchbook. This young girl had trained for the Army Massage Corps, and had worked in the hospitals performing what would become to be known as physiotherapy.

To this end, we urged people to consider all the millions behind the lines, on the home front, from nations all around the world, of all sorts of occupations, and of both genders. We urged our writers to consider other creatures than war horses (though we have had some very charming responses to the horses that helped their owners gather sphagnum moss on Dartmoor for Red Cross bandages). These creatures include the camels from the camel ambulance corps in Mesopotamia, the messenger pigeons, the cats, the mules. The pigeons seem to have appealed to our youngest writers in particular. We urged our writers to use their imaginations and consider what, for example, they might have been doing 100 years ago. This past week 300 international teenagers studying English here at the university, wrote to teenagers of 100 years ago.

I had the great privilege of meeting many of the 300 teenagers and briefing them on the project. They were from Russian, German, Saudi, France, Italy, China, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, etc. I entered their classes and talked about the project and they seemed a bit disinterested, that is, until I asked them their ages and where they came from. Suddenly when I started spelling out where they might have been 100 years ago – the Front, running the family farm, working in a factory, working in a hospital, sewing for soldiers, knitting, labourers, farm workers etc. – their eyes grew wide. I told them that 100 years ago, with so many men away, and women too, that these teenagers would have had massive responsibility for keeping things going on the home front. I told them too that even at 14 or 15, they might be at the Front, and that by 18, they would be old men. The marvellous thing about working with the international teenagers was that I could look across the room at them and see a Russian kid sitting next to a German kid sitting next to a Spanish kid sitting next to a French kid sitting next to a Chinese kid etc., and I could say to them, “It’s quite possible that 100 years ago, you would have faced each other across No Man’s Land. Can you imagine what those of 100 years ago would think when they knew we could all be so peaceable together?”

Our team of workshop providers has done a stunning job with outreach on this project. We have had elders writing, poignantly to their own fathers, and we have young children writing to their great-great grandfathers. We have had prisoners in HMP Dartmoor and HMP Dartmoor write to their family members, or to soldiers, or to animals, sometimes illustrating their cards, and we have had a Baroness, a Knight, and a Brigadier General, and a Lord Mayor all write cards. We have had a private girls school, The Maynard, participate, and state schools. We have had children with learning challenges write, and we have had PhDs write. We have had recovering addicts write, and we have had nurses write. We have had entire families write. And we have had people writing in many, many languages and from many countries: Somalia, Greece, France, Austria, Hungary, Italian, Spanish, Canadian, Pakistan, India, Saudi, Palestine, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England, US, Russian, Ukraine, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Bhutan, and many more.

The cards are being installed today in an outdoor gallery, a sunken garden near Reed Hall on the campus of the University of Exeter. They are being archived digitally and will be available in perpetuity for others to read. Also, we have engaged the digital artist Richard Alexander Carter to create his own Long Goodbye, his work will be on display tonight at the launch.

The Long Goodbye is our conversation across a century. But is our way of engaging not only with our past, but with our present and future. Remembering, not just the bad, but also, the profoundly human.

— 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

this dream, again

Christ, this dream has come again
I thought it past, long, the winter sun
long, the winter wood, the crack, the axe
the axe outside my door, you split the
wood, the winter wood, you left it so
undone, you left it so undone, your
cowardice, your faithlessness, o Christ
this dream has come again
I thought it past, long, past the winter sun.

— 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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