The sea with no one in it
2013, Porcupine’s Quill, Canada
Reviewed by Geoffrey Nilson
Myth and art are narratives transformed by time. The ocean is a narrative that is timeless and perpetually shape-shifting. In The sea with no one in it, the debut collection of poetry from Niki Koulouris, the ocean, mythology, the artist, and a close attention to form combine to construct and question the physical and sonic perceptions of the sea all around us.
Using synonymous nouns for bodies of water—ocean, sea, lake, river—Koulouris depicts a source of constant flux, water the physical manifestation of contextualism. The ocean is both destructive and empowering relative to context, meaning something very different for Theseus than for an Onassis. And the speaker seems to know this, saying “I’ve seen the ocean once / and I know it has potential / the only way to look at it / is as if it is familiar / there must be more to this than tides.” (11) For Koulouris and her speaker, the ocean is the most powerful myth to be investigated: “even though it was the sea / it did not seem like it / nor did it seem like what it could be.” (26)
The contextualism at play with regard to the sea seems alive also in the many ekphrastics—poems that interpret, inhabit, confront, or speak to a work of art—as they engage with mythology, but also with art and the myth of the artist, examining the gap between art and identity. Icarus appears beside Jasper Johns. Cleopatra appears beside Cézanne. Where the reader might expect wild, intense imagery in a poem dedicated to Jackson Pollock, instead Koulouris presents the reader with an owl and two canoes in a dark fog, possibly symbolic of the demons and loneliness of Pollock’s alcoholism. Koulouris’s unique perspectives with regard to mythic artists challenge longstanding narratives around them and their artworks.
Also at work in the text are subtle layers of poetic form. Broken into two sections, the poems are mostly numbered rather than titled, as if to suggest the sequence were fragments, like Sappho, of a longer work. They seem to suggest that what is on the page is not quite the whole story. A linguistic dexterity startles the reader wonderfully in contrast with the fluid, oceanic metre that rolls through the book. “A target at sea level / is yellow, red, blue and white / the four colours left in the world— / the one that does not turn / in front of you / or in any forest / as round as its boiled-bright yolk / is its somber penultimate halo.” (29) Two variations on the pantoum (“40” & “43”) embody a tidal poetic, of water and image, of myth and emotion. Never following a prescribed pattern, the repeated lines cycle back again and again like waves lapping against the shore.
While most of text brings an intellectual investigation of myth and art, it is not until the end that the reader sees the speaker’s gaze turn inward onto the poet. “It’s always midnight / in the river / between two poems” (58) it begins and the reader experiences the darkness that envelops the artist between work, the black void without ideas and without creation, like a ship at sea rolling on swells, with no land in sight. From this darkness The sea with no one in it radiates out, looking and looking again, knowing that midnight is simply a few short hours from the light.