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On the Count of None by Allison Chisholm

Reviewed by Margo LaPierre

Allison Chisholm delights with whimsical lyric poetry in On the Count of None, slinging an oddball medley of possibilities very much set in this world, but on a decidedly tilted axis. The collection begins by setting the stage: a violin, a dollhouse, an air of expectation, curtains drawn while the music continues. There seems to be an imagining of space without us in it. After reading the book, I feel as though I’ve gone through Chisholm’s home while she was away, that I’ve gotten to know the intimate objects that populate the space of her psyche. I am reminded of surreal photography in the stillness and unexpected connections in her poems. There is a breathlessness, sometimes even paralysis at the centre of her work, in the midst of flurries of movement, as in the poem “Heist.”

This day is a string of jewellery-store robberies / and we stand motionless. / A suffocating pause, / a crescendo on our breaths. / We gave ourselves over. / We finally submitted. / The stillness that overtook us / was borrowed from a book.

The recurring thread of dollhouse poems, seen under theatrical lights, made me feel like an audience both within her poems, imagining myself in the plush seats of the theatre, and as a reader at home, experiencing the poems unfold from the comfort of my couch. Many poems depict domestic scenes—one gets the sense that the dollhouse poems contain the kitchen poems (remember the perspective shift from miniature to life-sized in the film Hereditary?). Chisholm chooses different lenses with which to frame each poem. Some of my favourite poems highlighted quiet moments of human connection. “The Delicate Thing” is a standout of the connection—the beauty is in its momentum.

“I keep thinking / How it felt / To stand beside you / On that quiet morning / With the coffee brewing / And the water boiling / And the eggs tapping / And you avoiding / My outstretched hand / With your stretched-out truth.”

The impact of social mores and expectations are keenly felt; those who either like to rebel or who prefer to do their own thing without regard for the norm will feel at home. I look forward to reading more witty, speculative poetry from Chisholm—she has an acute imagination for various forms of social realities.

“Add these dates to your agenda: / September 14th — move-in day / October 27th – housewarming party / November 13th – book launch / December 23rd — tiny bodice adjustments / January 17th — shipwreck expedition / February 2nd — fantasy exploration — March 23rd — sea goddess beauty pageant — April 7th — finale in the crashing, foaming surf”

Characters in the book are often defined by their social or professional roles: stretcher-bearers, policemen, bachelors, founding fathers, maid-servants, designer infants. The poems that break away from these busy dream-societies provide a contrast of psychic space and introspective relief, as in “Uppercrest.”

“When the cooler climates came, I gave up all modern conveniences. In moonlit nights and along Georgian Bay, I traded in my well-groomed thoughts for wild abandon, bare instincts, a sporting interest. Tucked away in canyons and around the archipelago, I earned a decent grade mapping flights, skinning hides, charting stars.”

Some of Chisholm’s most accomplished poems were the ones dedicated to other people, and there were a number of these. Throwing a rope of intention to others seems to have given these pieces extra tautness and tension. In her poem “Credo,” for Stuart, she writes, “Abundant in your hand— / a lightness of being / an amazing shard of grace / the bleating of goats.” In “Yours,” for Nelson, she writes, “I / tried / out / your / big / sigh.” I kiss my fingers. Brief and resonant.

A series of horoscope poems are interspersed throughout the manuscript, each one titled according to an astrological sign. While I’m familiar with astrology and enjoy astro talk from a point of casual interest, I wish I could have read those twelve poems separately, perhaps as a chapbook, since I didn’t see the cohesion with an otherwise strong collection.

It’s an enjoyable book, and I applaud Chisholm’s imaginative range and distinctive writing style. These poems do not disappear into the background: they earn their position centre-stage. If you’re open to playfulness, originality, and a sense of drama, On the Count of None is a worthwhile wild ride of a read.

On the Count of None is published by Anvil Press.

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