War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

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


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;
Apeldoorn—
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
Patricias,
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

Welcome

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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