Shell shocked

photo of unidentified shell-shocked WWI soldier

Signs of shell shock, date and place unknown. Photo source The Great War Project:

Irene and
Henry helped Uncle
Tom pack the wagon, every
last bed
last chair
last plate
last hope that life would be better here
piled high
strapped down
and loaded
onto a freight car bound
for Chinguacousy.

Father sat, his
back to the door,
holding the baby, shell

No soldier should be allowed to think
that loss
of nervous or mental control
provides an honourable
avenue of escape
from the battlefield. *

So he endured the
shellfire snipers’ bullets
rats explosions gas infections stench
to survive
some way
and make it home
to Pearl and the children.

We’ll buy a farm in
British Columbia, Pearl
decided. Make
a new start. Raise
turkeys. Grow

Father stared a thousand
yards and said

so they came.

Three years came
and went, three
seasons of growth, three
harvests, three
snow-muffled winters, three
children flourished and a fourth
onto the scene.

Slowly the light
to Father’s eyes. The intoxicating
of lilacs in June. The way
the turkeys advanced
up the north
slope in August to nibble
on peavine. The eagle that swooped
to snatch
the hat from his head as he sat on Bandit’s
back. He was a/part
of something

And then Pearl took sick.

in her kidneys, the
doctor said. She grew
thin and
one last
chilled, feverish

and she was gone.

Henry doesn’t want to leave. He
thinks Father sits
with his back
to the door because he can’t
bear to watch Uncle
Tom lug their sparse belongings from
the house.

But Irene knows
that Father’s thousand-
yard stare is trained up
the north slope
for the turkeys to fly home
one last

* Recommendation of Britain’s War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock,” 1922.

This poem is a tribute to the family of Sidney Balaam (1878-1960) and his wife, Florence Pearl (1889-1922), who died at Bulkley Valley Hospital in Smithers, BC, age 33, leaving four children: Irene, Henry, Donald, and Barbara. I wrote it quickly as a stream-of-consciousness piece during my 2014 April poetry challenge, with this photo of a chair as its prompt.


A few days before I wrote it, I enjoyed a delightful phone conversation with Barbara Robinson, Sidney and Pearl’s fourth child in my poem. (In reality, she was their fifth. Ruth, their third, was born and died in 1914.)

Barbara was approaching 95 when we talked. I had tracked her down and telephoned her in the course of my research into the history of Cedarvale, the community where I live in northern BC. Barbara was a toddler when her family left Cedarvale, and she had no memories of it. But her older sister Irene and brother Henry had loved the place, and they filled Barbara’s childhood with stories like the ones glimmered at in my poem. Some of the details in the poem come from Pearl Balaam’s death certificate and other documents I found in my research. Others are merely my imagination riffing off Barbara’s mention that her father had been shell-shocked in the war and her mother wanted to move to BC.


5 Responses to “Shell shocked”

  1. Judith MacKay

    …But Irene knows
    that Father’s thousand-
    yard stare is trained up
    the north slope
    for the turkeys to fly home
    one last

    The whole poem touches me. The ending stuns me.

  2. Liz

    You are a woman of so many talents! Tears come as my mind goes to the devastating circumstances so many people lived through! Thanks for sharing! ?

  3. commatologist

    Thank you all for reading, and Gary, thank you for the nudge. Who knows what’s lurking in the depths of Cameron Lake? xo


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