The Only Card in a Deck of Knives

Wolsak and Wynn, 2020

Reviewed by Eileen Mary Holowka

Lauren Turner’s debut poetry collection, The Only Card in a Deck of Knives, was not meant to be published during a global pandemic and yet it is hard to imagine a better balm for this moment. Despite its stark focus on death, violence, and trauma, Turner’s writing is a realistic and gutting testament to survival. These poems fight for life with brutal honesty and, at a time when so many are being careless with the lives of themselves or others, these are perhaps exactly the words we need.

Turner has a gift for saying a lot with very little, cutting cleanly into the skin of an issue to reveal the blood that figures so prominently in these poems. “[N]o worldly substance behaves with more tenderness than blood,” as she says (75). But her long poems are what devastate most. In particular, “Quit Dying to Die,” “To the Men Who Would’ve Killed Me,” “Stop Bringing Me Here,” “Act V,” and “A Masculine Division” each tell a different tale of murder—by sickness, by men, by culture—until these all get confused. Or maybe they were confused to begin with.

“My illness feels, at times, like another ruthless man with a bone to pick (or organs to
tumour). This act of division is intentional, reducing my sick body to a struggle against a
masculine force. If that analogy angers you, it was intended to.” (73)

The imagery is gorgeous and seductive. There are pretty hairdos, and teacups, and girlish glamour, but beneath it all is an undercurrent of wrongness: the wrong kind of lovers, the wrong kind of bodies, the wrong deck of cards. Turner digs her way through all these wrongs, through the “botched mytholog[ies]” and moral-less stories to reveal an unstable kind of wonder, a much more precious beauty. Her poems show a resilience and commitment to life that screams in resistance to all these attempts to destroy it. The resistance is bloody and vibrant, but beneath all that gore there is life.

“Body scanned, a nude under ultraviolet, paint me with luminol
to reveal where the crime occurred.” (95)

The Only Card in a Deck of Knives did not need to reference Ana Mendieta for the comparison to appear. Like Mendieta’s art—her silhouettes, her stark recreation of a rape, her vulnerable self-portraits, her embrace of blood and gore—Turner’s poetry holds no punches, confessing everything despite the ever-looming threat of silence. Mirages, mirrors, and unreliable narrators (the terrible trio make sick women so hard to believe) only leave the text feeling more true.

Because here, truths are “venereal” (17), stories must be nursed (37), and exhaustion becomes violent. Sometimes the only options are a bullet to another or suffocation of the self. The choices are always grim, but Turner thrives in this paradox. She fleshes out the pain and persistence of each and every knife, where every word is beautiful and all of them hurt:

April is as much blooms as it is rot.
Don’t expect any differently.” (62)

Eileen Mary Holowka is a writer and PhD candidate currently studying online chronic pain communities. Her poetry has been published in Lemon Hound, CV2, and carte blanche and her digital narrative, circuits (2018), can be played for free online.