The Only Card In A Deck of Knives by Lauren Turner

[dropcap]In[/dropcap] her debut collection The Only Card In A Deck of Knives out with Wolsak &Wynn publishers, the poet Lauren Turner takes us “to the edge of something” as she writes in the first line of her poem “If You Haven’t Found Me Yet, Say Good-bye”. But what that something is – gendered illness, vulnerability, anger, personal relationships — changes throughout the collection.

Turner has a gift for evocative titles and top-shelf one-liners like, “Your mother’s expectations rode atop us like a flea market mink coat” or “how curtains don’t open, they expose” or “Burnout isn’t what happens to a phoenix”. Honestly, there are too many examples that left me smiling, and reflecting on the rightness of their phrasing. 

The whole collection is written in a myriad of forms and styles, with long poems and short lyrics sharing space within it. One of the more prominent themes is illness and reckoning with a terminal disease which is featured in the poem “Between Two Lobes I Was Released”:

I cannot say the unimaginable thing in this dress

meant only for Fridays. I have said my brain was fine

in the tone that frightened the other children.

There was a garden we couldn’t speak of anymore.

My dearest neurons, a guerrilla firing squad voguing

to pose me on my knees in the lavender. I plead

The maze was harmless topiary. It was, in fact, a grove

of shrubs with pierced fruit we couldn’t look at

twice. Can I take a long stroll before this sentence

no longer makes sense? Of course, buried treasure

must reside in the deepest hole we can conceive.

Of course, my cortex hid two gilded tumours in the folds

of its sleeves. I am sick of saying sickness is uncalculated

when it pops off my flower heads without missing

a single bud. Who will come visiting when I call

agape for eros and [silence] as the names of comrades?

Like aspirations, a solitary seizure takes on many

forms – a drawn stare, a string of mix-ups, the drop

into psyche’s coop. I am told I looked at the minotaur

with every intent of purpose. I am told I blinked

and fell toward the garden with fists aloft.

The poem is both beautiful and frightening in its choice of imagery. “My dearest neurons” turn against the speaker becoming “a guerilla firing squad voguing to pose me on my knees in the lavender.” There is a freshness to the imagery without a hint of self-pity or the amateur’s rush to be provocative. There is just the steady voice of the poet saying, “ I am sick of saying sickness is uncalculated / when it pops off my flower heads without missing / a single bud”.

As you read Turner’s collection, you notice the poet unravelling historical connections between illness and gender, specifically shining a spotlight on how women’s sick bodies have been traditionally labelled “hysterical”, their symptoms and pain deemed “delusional”, which is a view dissected in her poem “Between Push and Shove” when the speaker states, “Quit giving pet names to hysteria, / calling out for long-ago selves like milk carton kids”.

My personal favourite poems of Turner’s are those that meld her powerful metaphor-making abilities and her triggering subjects into indelible lines like in her long poem “Quit Dying to Die” where the speaker sagely states matter-of-factly, “A sick body is an enchanted forest, overflowing its borders with civil war”.  

For a first collection, the book has an incredible formal range, and there are too many stand-out poems and lines to address in one single review, but I want to highlight one last poem entitled “Cracked Fabergé Egg of Yes”:

Allison calls my life lost. I haven’t quit

combing the gold curls of eulogies


friends write instead of saying I’m sorry

which is, somehow, too simple


a knot to tie. I won’t be effaced

from scorched earth. Airplanes spiral


pre-crash. Less smoke when dragon

meets butterfly net,


the gravitas of physics plucking flight

from a future’s marrow.


April is as much blooms as it is rot.

Don’t expect differently.

The couplet at the end of the poem is pure Turner, balancing the existential dread of terminal illness with aphoristic wit and the weight of personal acceptance. This poem had me thinking about it long after I read it.

A talent like Lauren Turner’s is one to be celebrated and watched. Reading her collection The Only Card In A Deck of Knives (Wolsak &Wynn) will likely produce envy and enthusiasm in all who read it. Instead of one card, she plays with so many: a wealth of forms, a tool-box of well-tailored images and lines, and an emotional authenticity that can only be generated by turning a microscope on one’s lived experience. I can’t recommend this book enough.

About the author: Lauren Turner is a disabled poet and essayist, who wrote the chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time (knife | fork | book, 2018). Her work has appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, Poetry is Dead, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Puritan, canthius and elsewhere. She won the 2018 Short Grain Contest and was a finalist for the 2017 3Macs carte blanche Prize. She lives in Tiohtiá:ke/Montréal on the unceded land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.

  • Paperback : 88 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1989496091
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1989496091
  • Product Dimensions : 14.61 x 0.89 x 21.59 cm
  • Publisher: Buckrider Books (May 12 2020)

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Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of six collections of poems with Deepfake Serenade from Nightwood Editions forthcoming in Fall 2021. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.