War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

The Calling

I think about the magus, Michael Green (our national treasure), so much since I’ve come home to Canada. He was a life changer for me as he acted as midwife to the war requiem. Our last social time together was spent drinking single malt and scheming future projects. No cigars were involved, thankfully, because rehearsals had just begun and I needed a clear head!

I was away for all of Michael’s memorials and only now have read his obits. Sometimes I am so caught up in the worries and complexities of life-life (relationships, finances, logistics), that I forget my real life, the artist life propelled by the need to create (there is no choice in this, it is spiritual survival). I need to think about Michael at these times, especially as the quote below depicts Michael.

The last time I was with Michael he was SO EXCITED about his Treaty 7 project/work. He said to me that it was his life-changing moment. We were going to talk about how I might be involved at a later date.

It’s so strange when one’s life-changing moment, following one’s true calling, leads, ultimately, to one’s death. I know of young Canadian soldiers who felt called to soldiery, some since infancy practically, and who died in the line of duty. I understand this (tho I recognise that friends from countries with military regimes, or that have been through war or are war-torn or occupied etc., or, conversely live in imperialist nations etc. cannot understand a Canadian military). My work has led me to confront my mortality straight on. In fact, when I felt like backing out on a trip outside the wire in Afghanistan, Barb Tobin-Anderson said to me, “Now you know how THEY feel”.

You know, the artist-life is weirdly perceived as being either elitist or bottom-feeding. Michael Green, like the late flamenco guitarist Harry Owen, another amazing visionary, taught me that every show is the most important. Harry taught me that an audience of one was as important as an audience of 1700 (the size of the requiem’s audience), or 11 million (the size of the BBC World Service audience for whom I have read my work three times). I think what both men shared was the ‘boy inside the man’ who was never ‘buried’. As a mother, a then-wife to someone else’s career and life for many years, somehow the girl gets lost. Yet it is that freshness of spirit that truly elevates our artistic spirit, the artist life, and helps to recreate a vision of the world anew.

Michael, it’s 1 1/2 years since you’ve been gone. I still can’t quite believe it. Thank you for everything.
“Every show they ever did was the most important show they ever did – that’s what I learned from him,” Mr. McCulloch says. “He was a guy who accomplished a lot in this world, but he never kind of buried the boy inside the man. He was always the little boy as well, which I loved about him and I hope to emulate.”

— smsteele

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


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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