Witness to War

Canada’s first war poet endured suffering

Poet Suzanne Steele in the belly of a Canadian Chinook helicopter.

Canada’s first war poet endured suffering

Private Kevin McKay was two days away from returning home to Canada when he was struck by a roadside bomb. On foot patrol 15 kilometres outside Kandahar city, the 24-year-old became the 144th Canadian soldier to die in the Afghanistan conflict.

But the memory of the young soldier lives on. In verse and prose, Vancouver Island’s Suzanne Steele tells his story — and the stories of so many others who risk their lives serving the country. Steele, a communications analyst in Metchosin, found her literary calling in documenting the lives of Canadian soldiers serving in war-torn countries. The topic, she says, chose her.

“Art is not just about the pretty and the beautiful. It’s about all facets of human life. In war we see the best and the worst of people. I’m not pro-war. I’m a witness to war,” Steele says.

In writing her first war poem, Steele set out on a journey that would eventually lead her to fly over Taliban territory. Elegy for an Infantryman, an homage to fallen soldier Anthony Boneca, demanded a detailed description of the Afghan dust. “I YouTubed it, I Googled it. I was stuck,” Steele remembers. “If you don’t get it right as an artist, I don’t think it’s worthwhile.”

Determined to get it right, she applied for the Canadian Forces Artist Program, which allows artists to portray the work of soldiers in the field. A few months later, she was accepted as the country’s first war poet and spent 18 months visiting military bases in Canada.

In 2009, she went to Afghanistan. She stayed three weeks — a time that would mark her for the rest of her life.

 “Once you go and have this profound experience, it never leaves you,” Steele says. Something in her dark eyes leaves no doubt about that.

“War can make us and can break us. I think it’s making me, but it’s a heavy load, too. There’s been a lot of suffering.” Five of the soldiers she knew died, and shortly before her departure to Afghanistan, a major incident in her personal life almost made her cancel her plans.

It was her 14-year-old daughter, Ella, who encouraged her to keep going. “She told me to finish what I started because I felt like I couldn’t do it. She was amazing,” Steele says. Ella also makes sure her mother doesn’t swear too much after coming home from the base.

“I’d have to clean up my act,” Steele says, laughing.

She also grew accustomed to army jokes. “The one thing I really fail at is conveying their sense of humour,” Steele says. “I actually really miss being out with them, because these guys are so freaking funny.” When she talks about her time with the troops, she uses terms like KAF, IEDs, RPGs, and blue rockets, and then quickly explains them to the layperson — blue rockets are what the soldiers baptized their portable toilets.

Sitting in a rocking chair at her kitchen table, she writes about her helicopter ride outside the wire, about the Desert Diver, McKay, Angel and the other boys. She calls them the boys, or guys, and this includes the females. She lights a candle and sips loose-leaf tea while painting a mental picture of the Afghan landscape, the deserted Russian schoolhouse, the old men with donkeys.

A cat, Rosie, purrs in her lap. The cottage is filled with the smell of burning firewood. On the table lies yet another work in progress. She’s knitting socks in Air Force blue. Compared to the Kandahar Airfield, Steele is looking forward to a little boredom.

Her goal is to stay home for the next six months and write. A play and a book are on the way. She has finished writing over a thousand pages, which is only the beginning.

“It just pours out of you. I could write all day, every day, right now,” Steele says. “There are years of work coming out of this.” Warpoet.ca, the website she hosts, also serves as her notebook, helping her to organize, revive and relive her memories.

While her work is studied at a Master’s level in the U.K., she is less known in Canada. “Publishers are very, very shy of me, possibly because I’m perceived as a propagandist,” Steele says. Her position as war artist is unpaid. She owns all of her work, and says she has never been told what to write. Negative reactions to her poetry surprise her. To her, war is a topic like any other.

“War is like an orange — it simply is,” Steele says. “As an artist, it is my job to witness. . . . Soldiers hate war. If you’ve seen war, you hate it.”

Still, she wants to return to Afghanistan, and stay longer with the troops. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.” M

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