By Morgan O’Neal
Sharron Proulx-Turner’s last book, what the auntys say, must have been a hard act to follow, being the ‘aunties’ had some largish feet and therefore large and weighty working boots to fill, but these big boots, heavy enuf when clean and polished, when wet and caked with berry-picking mud slowed the poet down to the speed of sound at least, and kept her down to earth where we live and work, firmly grounded in meaning. This grounding, so elemental and necessary in she walks for days inside a thousand eyes, becomes air-borne in a song “sung by the winged tip of blue black feather” (Connie Fife); too many times what’s thrown off as ballast is essential to meaning. Daniel David Moses has described what the auntys say by coining a term encapsulating its essence: metissage. Indeed he credits her with creating a new genre of literature in order to serve the Métis Nation. And I agree with him. “What Proulx-Turner does with English must be what the Métis did to create themselves,” he writes. “what the auntys say is renewed storytelling . . . . That human metissage is her message.”
Proulx-Turner sang an “old lady” into being and that old lady sang a world. She created that world of hers in benign dictation, like a blind Milton talking in as many tongues as fit “inside a thousand eyes,” reciting word for word from memory a masterpiece, Paradise Lost, to his daughter after living long enough to see the real Paradise of Revolution lost. In her previous work, her poet’s eye was always also on herself, and it was a critical eye: “. . .how can anyone hate a baby is what goes through her head / this is just after she sees them folks in white town / put that baby in a vice / and squeeze.” What the auntys say was a real achievement, “the culmination of years of rumination on roots and the power of language.” She was short-listed for the 2003 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry, and should have won. The book was a joy to behold, a densely packaged gift of knowledge offered up in the spirit of ancestral wisdom from which we come away very much richer for the experience of reading. Each word, phrase, line, verse, each poem is an intimate note left just for us, “frozen in hail the size of maria campbell” (75), the size of Sharron Proulx-Turner. As a poet she earned herself the office of elder and teacher; not because of a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Calgary, but because she produced a book of poetry that speaks from the heart directly to the Métis Nation and beyond.
But this new book, she walks for days inside a thousand eyes: a two-spirit story, besides having a very long title, rises to whatever occasion it was decided it should rise to, but the big old boots of the aunties are too much for the soaring ‘wing tip of blue black feather.’ Birds of a feather with an avian species, they first appeared in a character sketched as “Young Crow-Caw Caught in Calgary“ and “Young Crow-Caw Loses an Eyeball” in Tales from Moccasin Avenue published by the Drum’s Totem Pole Press (2006). Frankly, Young Crow-Caw cannot afford to lose an Eyeball, for with it fully half of what we need, in relation to the story of the Two-Spirit ones, goes missing too. If some blue black feathers waft slowly to ground and like so many human attempts to fly, even transformed into avian form, the pilot, or poet has only herself to blame when forced back down to earth in smoke and flame. To give up the bird’s eye view is like living in a wheelchair unfriendly city; the problem is one of design and execution, the impossibility of maneuvering that chair through the poorly designed and thus malicious metropolis.
Still, the spectacle of Proulx-Turner surviving the blush of crash and burn is quite as interesting and informative as any ordinary book by a lesser writer. Last time she gave us a recipe for bannock discreetly interwoven with social critique; this time we learn to count to ten in Mitchif sweetly rolled up in magical historical narrative about a singularly heroic ‘two-spirit woman’ rescuing a “mother with her newborn child through mexican and american cavalry forces across the chihuahuan desert from mexico to the mescalero apache reservation . . . .” And these physically strenuous escapes through the creation of language into the real and hitherto hidden historical facts are transformed into story with the same deft hand of an ancient Indigenous Storyteller working with the sad facts of the white man’s cruel conquest or of Sir Walter Scott’s inventive genius in recording the myth of a colonialist historical novel.
The pages of Proulx-Turner’s where she master’s the Trickster’s movements, where she throws off the ball and chain of margins and ceases merely to play with words and begins again to work with them, these are the magical mitchif of her “important contribution to the Canadian and Aboriginal literary canons” (Fife). The bird’s eye view is a narrative device long known to storytellers and novelists, the perspective closest to a godforsaken omniscient; it takes in visually much more than the pedestrian can, its vantage point is all encompassing, but distant, and indeed therefore becomes pedestrian in another sense. The problem here is that the book’s proportions are off, and so, like a body whose legs end up in very large feet yet can neither support the body nor lift the feet, or, say, like a bird that just cannot fly, will not survive. Burdened as are these Darwinian inventions, however noble Darwin’s intentions, they nevertheless inherit those same weighty wise berry- picking mud-caked boots of the ever-present aunties singing from somewhere off in the margin that creeps back onto the page..
But there is nothing better than going around the table at a family get together and counting up in how many languages the family group there gathered can now count to ten: piyak, niso, nisto, newo, niyanan, nikotwasik, tipakohp, ayenanew, kika mitataht, mitataht.
Sharron Proulx-Turner is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta of Mohawk, Huron, Algonquin, Ojibwe, Micmaw, French, Scottish and Irish ancestry, for whom “writing is a sacred gift.” A previously published memoir of abuse –Where Rivers Join–was short-listed for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Her work has been anthologized in Crisp Blue Edges: Indigenous Creative Non-fiction, My Home as I Remember, Writing the Land and elsewhere. She currently lives in Calgary.