Monday, November 15, 2021

Elizabeth Oxley's Review of Marjorie Power's Sufficient Emptiness

Sufficient Emptiness, Marjorie Power, Deerbrook Editions, Cumberland, ME, 100 pp., $18.25 paperback.

Ezra Pound said literature does not exist in a vacuum. Neither does our consumption of it, though on this June morning it would be more accurate to say my reading occurs near a vacuum—specifically a Bissell, which stands in the kitchen corner like a child consigned to timeout while I sink into the sofa, a copy of Marjorie Power’s latest poetry collection, Sufficient Emptiness, in hand. The Bissell is emblematic of my efforts to prepare for an impending move. Necessary to that transition is the making of room—a winnowing of my physical and emotional baggage. So advises my inner voice, and so convey Power’s elegant poems as they cohere—exuding clean insight and amiable grace—around the notion of home and the consideration of what we carry as we move forward in time.

Divided into five parts, Power’s collection bears section epigraphs—derived from Frederick Zydek’s Stumbling Through the Stars (Holmes House Publications, 2004)—that map the collection’s trajectory from ancestral roots, through loss and regeneration, into the realm of myth and fable where “imitation flames still spark real hope.” Each poem serves as a room inside the book’s larger house of memory, built from such sustainable materials as wind running its fingers through wheat, an online search for an unknown father, and the poet’s notice of a blue spruce luxuriating in sunlight. The collection’s opening poem, “Season Tickets,” sets a tone of alert observation that honors the hoarding impulse of human memory while avoiding sentimental nostalgia. Stuck at a musical theater performance that’s “like a bad dream” from which her husband refuses to leave “until the house lights go on,” the poet bides her time:


In such darkness I sit quietly

on the lookout for lost things.

White aprons embroidered with roses,

pieces of straw from cold barns,

kettles hurled from their fires

toward the end of time.

These I gather for the old, old woman who

restores each to its rightful use. In such darkness

as my husband abides, she works.

From this starting point of limited visibility, Power works her way outward into moments of increased illumination, traveling from Vermeer’s oils (“a sunbeam / falling just-so across a young woman’s brow, / her gaze wide-eyed, beatific”) to the “bright orange quality / that frightened me as a child” the poet assigns to her own mother. 

Power’s poems themselves are vessels of light, each line broken to reflect maximally on the linguistic or narrative event preceding it and that which waits on the next line’s shelf. This quality is the “sufficient emptiness” of which Power speaks in the collection’s title poem, in which the poet—in a coffee shop packed with “a throng of poets plus / two young children”—reads a poem aloud to the accompaniment of a man on flute:


I stand not overly close,

pace each phrase with care

to allow him sufficient emptiness.


His response holds

both issue and ancestor.

It holds love lost until now.


Look at these café children, sitting still

in a peculiar calm. This hour reveals

an entrance to the trail of crumbs.


Indeed, this seems to be the secret to Power’s striking poems as she takes stock of the relationships and landscapes that have textured a well-traveled life: her ability to forge opulence not through an over-crowding of language but by the thoughtful selection of each word based on its sonic or ideational merits. The result is a roominess that feels hospitable rather than sparse, as in the poet’s recollection of time spent along the Oregon coast in “It’s Pronounced Yah-hots”:


I came and went too.

But I’ve kept two friends

one beach north in a slightly longer town.

Like Yachats, it holds routine tsunami drills.


My friends are very old. Each lives alone. These two remain

pledged to the soft salty mist that caresses their cheeks

the way nuns persist through the loss of many sisters.


Part scrapbook and part hope chest, Power’s poems are spacious enough to position loss and renewal not as polar opposites but as distinct filters through which one may find the bold gem or scrap of color worth carrying forward (“Trees reduced to gray bones / have their own / beauty”). If I am pulled from this contemplation at any point, it is in section three, The Eyes: An Ekphrastic Sequence, and only because I wished to linger in the sweetly delusional state conjured by Power in “The New Chickens,” the final poem of the book’s second section:


When I was a child, my neighbor

kept chickens. He let me stand

in their dim, shabby, stinking coop

throwing handfuls of dried corn.


Chaos! Cacophony!

Not one missed out, ever,

on the cluck-flutter rush.

Oh, I was a powerful child.


Sensitive observation is key to this collection’s impact, however, and Power’s ekphrastic sequence—inspired by Russian-born artist Ludmila Pawlowska’s collection Icons in Transformation—furthers her exploration of emptiness, as when the poet craves space away from “apocalyptic headlines,” exhorting:


Angel of the spheres

of yellow and red,


let me join you

in your blue window.


Art may also bestow divine-style consolation for the emptiness we experience as grief. In Power’s poetic translations of Pawlowska’s physical works, the reader therefore receives a double blessing, as when Power describes the assembling of a suburban crowd in “Midwinter Night’s Dream”:


The congregants are mostly male.

But in this oh-so-soft golden glow

the coats on these old, strong, wiry frames

turn the same perfect blue used by Old Masters

when painting the cloak

they imagined


for the Madonna.


Perhaps it is the cardboard boxes shoved willy-nilly against the far wall of my living room or my clothes heaped everywhere they should not be, but I am grounded in Power’s collection by her poems’ gritty, everyday moments, the daily ash most of us sift and from which—if we are lucky—insight later arises. For Power, such dust takes the shape of letter-writing and delayed deliveries (“The Post Office, / understaffed, cannot be held responsible / for anything”); the surfacing of a memory of a long-ago boyfriend (“Fifty years later I realize it was his music and / vast eucalyptus trees whose scent suggested / a future of doors that would open as I approached”); or the small favor asked of an acquaintance:


He’d be happy to, he said.

I hadn’t known him long so I was glad.


Came a silence I can’t diagnose.

There’d been a time frame. An outermost.

Now he clicks like on my Facebook posts.


Each of us is a patchwork house of memory, illustrates Sufficient Emptiness, the light playing differently across our walls depending on the hour or how widely we’ve opened our doors to truth as we “Try for any reminder / of Eden before the / snake slithered in.” Granted enough space, conscious moments of self-reflection—like Power’s philodendron in sunshine that “comes on like a lamp”—send out roots that anchor us through our changing seasons. And if emptiness ever lands less like welcome breathing room and more like suffocating darkness, we can call upon the hope of Power’s acquaintance, which “circles a basement / with a Mason jar full of fireflies, / releasing one for each upstairs light that fails.”

Elizabeth Oxley's poetry collection, After April Rain, was published by Longship Press in 2021. Her poetry has also appeared in The Banyan Review, The Poetry Review, Crosswinds, Frontier Poetry, Peregrine, and other journals. She was the winner of the 2019 Frontier Poetry Industry Prize for her poem "After April Rain," second-place winner of the 2018 Frontier Poetry OPEN competition for "Expelling Venus," and third-place winner of the 2015 National Poetry Competition for "Biracial." Elizabeth attended Franklin University Switzerland, Brown University, and Georgetown University during her undergraduate years and is pursuing her M. Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. More about her work can be found at