what the auntys say

By Morgan O’Neal

There is no shortage of poetry in circulation nowadays, and one gets tired of being dragged into the internal banalities of so-called poets who assume that every word they write is worthy of the paper its written on. But Sharron Proulx-Turner distinguishes herself from the run of the mill in her “caustic and powerful creation poem,” what the auntys say. The poet sings the “old lady” into being in language and rhythm, and the ‘old lady’ sings the world into being in dust and grass. “Retold by the auntys of the title, what the auntys say is serial poetry with wit as dry and humour as rich as the land that bred it. Stirring magic into the mundane, Sharron Proulx-Turner bleeds elegy through the colloquial, fusing history, soil and Alberta farmland into a dense, fluid neo-epic. Language soars.”

In the case of this book, the advertising blurb is true to its word. What the auntys say is a real achievement, and as “the culmination of years of rumination on roots and the power of language” it does Proulx-Turner’s Metis heritage proud. Shortlisted for the 2003 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry, in both form and content, this book is a joy to behold, a densely packaged gift of knowledge offered up in the spirit of ancestral wisdom. There is as much truth in a recipe for bannock discreetly interwoven with social critique of the colonial past as there is in any patronizing commonplace delivered from the pulpit or the lecturn of a pedagogue. In the opinion of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award Judges, the book “is beautiful in its forms and whole, drives out fear, is full of elation and vigour, funny, smart and gentle, with a lovely use of refrains and a historical consciousness. The old lady trickster is wonderful.”
Although there is no shortage of shocking imagery, each traumatic figure is tempered by the generosity and humor of the literate voice which utters the violence. The poet’s eye is always a critical one: “And out pops the old lady / body raining flying fills the breeze / picks up that paleskinned blueyed baby / how can anyone hate a baby is what goes through her head / this is just after she sees them folks in whitetown / put that baby in a vice / and squeeze” (Part iiii, Many mother-tongued and too big for that one, “Full-winged and awed to cheechauk” 101). The old lady gets her knowledge from the same source we are expected to discover it, language. She reads the messages left for her in the notes of random event and encounter: “a note the old lady finds frozen in hail the size of a goose egg [knowledge of the natural world] . . . a note the old lady finds frozen in hail the size of georges erasmus [the teachings of the elders]” (Part iii, You must break them apart until the children are read, “Rinsing off the whites of eggs” 93).

This knowledge, this wisdom Proulx-Turner turns over to us when we read her poetry, is truly a gift, for we come away somehow very much richer for the effort and experience of reading. Each word, phrase, line, verse, poem, is an intimate note left just for us, “frozen in hail the size of maria campbell” (75), the size of Sharron Proulx-Turner. For as a poet she has earned herself the office of elder and teacher. She has earned the title not because she holds a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Calgary where she has taught at Old Sun and Mount Royal Colleges, but because she has produced a book of poetry that speaks from the heart directly to the Metis Nation and beyond.