Articles & Reviews

Familiar War: a review of two poetry books

Playing the Numbers
Myron Turner
North Dakota Quarterly Press, n.p.

Shadows in the Glass
Beth Jankola

Review by Stephen Morrissey
Canadian Literature, no. 122-123
autumn-winter 1989

In a short preface to Playing the Numbers, Myron Turner stares that in his poetry he is recreating "the mythology of [his] family," and wishes to pass this mythology on to his children and nieces and nephews "so that they could know the extent to which their story is never far from war either as a fact or as a metaphor that shapes consciousness." But these are not "war poems" that seek to remind the reader of heroic acts committed by soldiers; instead. Turner's notion of war is one of familial relationships, everyday existence, and the conflicting forces that form the inner life. World War II and Turner's youth at that time in the East Bronx, New York, serve as a backdrop.

Playing the Numbers is full of detail, unlike the elliptical conciseness of many contemporary poets' work. He has many memories and feels they are all important; his poetry is one long remembrance. Because he writes with passion and love, Turner's memories become important to the reader; we share with him the emotions he is experiencing. In a series of poems on his father he writes;

I photograph
him on the beach. We are visiting
my sister in Pablo Robles—the three
of us in the same place for the first
time in eleven years—never
enough money or enough love.

Later, "when the photographs come back," he has an epiphanic insight regarding his father:

my father's face fills a sun-struck
frame, his blind eye
wide open to its darkness, the good
one squinting in the painful light
and his thin hair torn from his head
in the wind and mouth with a black
slit wedged between the lips
as though he were about to
or just now uttered
a cry.

Ultimately, Playing the Numbers is a wonderful celebration of life. Myron Turner is a poet who deserves more recognition than he has received; he is an excellent craftsman whose work is accessible without being superficial, and emotionally moving without being sentimental.

Like Turner's book, Beth Jankola's Shadows in the Glass explores the self in relationship to others; both writers seek to transcend deeply rooted inner conflict. Over the ten years that I have followed Jankola's writing, I have been impressed by her willingness to experiment; she is not a poet who finds a particular voice and then never again explores other ways of writing. As with Turners poetry, Jankola's work deals with a renunciation of old ways of being in favour of the psychologically threatening ground of a new self. Shadows in the Glass examines with spontaneous immediacy the poet's confrontation with the divided self. She is constructing a newer and more durable self with which to meet everyday life:

You are under strain
she said
A large fat tear escaped from
under my left straining eyeball

My heart is strained I said
disappearing again

into my brain storehouse of
my jewelled inner life


I try projecting onto screens

my x-ray vision finds behind
tormented eyes

Jankola writes with compassion that comes with maturity but also with suffering and insight into existence. In "My Daughter Said" she writes:

I'm scared. What are you scared of I asked?
I'm scared
of being scared
she replied.
And so am I. And so am I.

Her refrain, "And so am I," reveals her honesty and compassion. But to what perception does Jankola ultimately come? "Apologia" suggests an answer:

I made them up
Gave them character
from within my own view
assessed them
made them into people I knew
I simplified them


reacted to what I had made up
behaved as if what
I invented was real

of course
they did the same to me.

Instead of seeing other people, we see our projected image of what we feel or believe about them to be true. This insight is not without its positive side; fruitful relationship arises where we can avoid projecting images onto other people.

Lowey is a competent poet but he is still young, not necessarily in years but in maturity of vision. In "The Land Unravelling" he writes:

Furrows unravel,
farm houses take root
by gravel roads
where mowers rust;
husks of car bodies
hunch in the field,
mottled dogs chase the sun
as the town discovers
its one hotel:
paint it green and brown.

Lowey's poetry is full of such everyday things. In "Barbershop Quartet" he discusses the arrival of "four American lads / who resemble The Beatles" and who will give a performance "that almost sounds like" the real Beatles. Other world events and personal insights are combined to describe a world of lost innocence and impending corruption. But Lowey's work lacks something that is present in the work of Turner and Jankola. His poetry displays his compassion and empathy for other people, but without depth or intensity of insight. In one poem he writes sympathetically of Sylvia Plath: Plath's work is nothing if not intense and powerful. But Lowey must decide if he is willing to risk entering psychologically threatening territory. Turner and Jankola make such a commitment; Lowey still veers away.

Copyright © 2007 The author