September 26, 2015

The Likeness of the Waves: A Review of Niki Koulouris’s “The sea with no one in it” by Anthony Frame

cover credit: The Porcupine's Quill
The sea with no one in it by Niki Koulouris
The Porcupine’s Quill (2013)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

Niki Koulouris is a poet of the ocean, of the sea with its wide blue horizon. Although the vast, expansive ocean may be intimidating to those born inland, with only rivers and lakes to dip their toes in, Koulouris’s debut collection of poems easily draws in readers. Perhaps it is the shared love for bodies of water; perhaps we can recognize the rhythms of water found deep in these lyrics. Certainly, Koulouris’s lines and images, tight and terse, flow with “the likeness of the waves” and create a remarkable and daring collection.

“I’m fond of ships,” writes Koulouris in the opening poem of The sea with no one in it:
their progress,
the turning weather
for they are never without alternatives
and they may contain the whole population of the mountains
Here we can see the rising tide of her book—the short lines slowly expanding, the pacing of the syllables, even the careful use of articles to control the rhythm. The lines creep up on readers, tentatively, only to suddenly crash into us. Like waves, they then slowly pull back into the poem’s body. This rhythm is fairly consistent, and even the few poems that play with form use the formal repetition to create a sense of water coming in and out. This consistency then binds the book’s two disparate sections.

Koulouris’s book is comprised of forty-four poems. Most are shorter than a page and contain barely a half dozen or so words per line. Each poem is numbered rather than titled and they are separated into two untitled sections. The poems rarely use punctuation or capitalization. When they do, they occur only when the lines’ structures are not enough to convey syntax. In the book’s first section, twenty poems create a catalogue of the sea. The second section, with twenty-four poems, is comprised mostly of ekphrastic poems with a few sea/water images scattered throughout. This changes with poem No. 39 when the sea returns as the dominant poetic vehicle.

At first glance, her poems are reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s most famous poems. They are crafted with short lines that use pitch-perfect and evocative descriptions. In poem No. 12, for example, she writes about “the steak of Africa / the broken comma / of New Zealand.” And in No. 8, she describes the Aegean Sea as “the colour of a stork.” A Whitman-esque poet might unpack that image, spending a handful of lines stretching the stork metaphor until it snaps. But Koulouris is confident enough to let it hover there, allowing the reader to ponder this rich and unique image. And it is an earned confidence.

But there is more to Koulouris’s work than the precision of the Imagist school of poetry. Throughout, she avoids description and offers a directive statement or an imposing question. In this way, the poems carry an air of the famous ending of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“You must change your life.”). This is best seen in poem No. 3, during which Koulouris explains what we shouldn’t mention about the sea, “for her waves / will never be yours.” She ends the poem with three stunning couplets:
her heart is solid fire
her eyes are weak

if it is not the sea
it is the shores

where would you be
without regrets?
That final couplet seems to come from nowhere, but it is a remarkable conclusion. She evokes a regret of not fully knowing the sea because it can never be ours, a regret of not tasting her waters and not touching her shores.

More than anything, though, what is perhaps most admirable about Koulouris’s poetry is her subtle irony and humor. This is especially true in the second section of the book, which adopts a darker tone. Many of these poems, inspired by artists and writers like Philip Guston and Maurice Sendak, address mortality. In No. 21, for the German Expresionist artist Anselm Kiefer, she describes “a landscape razed for battle.” Later, she responds to Picasso’s Guernica in No. 28. But rather than focusing on the destruction shown in the painting, she finds a voice of bitter irony. “the band is / paid to screech,” she writes, and “to my surprise / there were wares / outside.” But through this, she doesn’t ignore the horror of Guernica, as seen in this tercet: “a formidable horse / drinks from tinted water / strikes oil.” Earlier poems also contain this biting humor, but none more so than No. 13, which is a catalogue of what the sea does not need, including:
all of Alabama or the NYPD
and I am sure the sea does
not need Jack Kerouac
to take a stab at it
There is something entrancing about Koulouris’s poetry. It makes readers want to dive deep within it, to drown. Its rhythms are intoxicating and, like a riptide, refuse to let go. The surface appearance of simplicity belies the poems’ complex and daunting depth. “It is always midnight / in the river / between two poems,” Koulouris writes in No. 44, the final poem. There may be rivers between her poems, but they are, indeed, oceans.

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