The sea with no one in it by Niki Koulouris

reviewed by Georgia Kreiger

From the borders between ocean and shore, sea and sky, the voice of Niki Koulouris’s The sea with no one in it speaks. More importantly, though, the voice of this collection of poems positions the reader at the nexus of the image that imprints itself upon the perceiver’s mind and its apt expression in language on the page. In Koulouris’s verse, the sea serves as backdrop for the populace of images that arrive like tides on wave after wave of poetic lines and subside into starless darkness with each poem’s final word.


Koulouris’s collection is divided into two parts. The first consists of twenty poems connected by a coterie of images: waves and tides; ships, shields, torches, crosses, and flags; the shore and “the un-numbered stars.” Some lines are spoken to such formidable classical seafarers as Theseus and Icarus. A pantheon of constellations—lion, bear, elephant--reflects upon the water’s surface, as fish sail its undercurrents. The voice of these poems defines the artistic mission of the work, declaring, “I’ve seen the ocean once / and I know it has potential,” after which the imaginative potential of this setting is plumbed. The final poem of the first part of the book reveals that the effort has yielded more than can be conveyed, so that the setting itself is obscured, as the voice wonders “what has become of the ocean outnumbered by waves.”


The second part consists of a set of twenty-three predominantly ekphrastic works, some dedicated to artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Maurice Sendak, and Cézanne. In these verses, the sea is re-envisioned in the speaker’s response to visual artworks. To Kiefer, the promise: “I will prove / you have painted Nero’s ocean,” and the observation, “we can lose track forever / of a wave in the ocean.” And to Pollock, the sea is found in a new iteration in one poem’s opening lines: “In a pact with an owl / you wade through / the cramped reflections on a lake.” The final poem returns the reader to the borders that have thematized the collection, as the voice asserts, “It’s always midnight / in the river / between two poems.”

Unique in this collection is Koulouris’s employment of negation as a conceptual premise for many of the poems. As the verses become cluttered by symbols that ride the waves of thought, the speaker endeavors to clear the conceptual field of the poems, instructing the reader, for instance, “Don’t mention / the sea / her great hide / for she is perfect / without a shield / a torch / an ending.” To envision the sea, the speaker suggests, involves the inevitable entry of a flotilla of imagined objects and contexts. These must be swept away, because, “you can’t go on / exactly like this / chanting until / the ocean is complete / for her waves / will never be yours. . . .” The sea, like a palimpsest, must be purged of its symbolism so that a new layer of thought may be introduced.


The imperative to empty the scene of its symbolic potential, however, may have the opposite effect on the reader. As the speaker prompts readers not to imagine a setting or an object, that setting or object inevitably imposes itself upon the mind. The speaker seems to make a sport of negation, cueing the reader with lines such as “I do not think of the deep” in order to imagine just that, or with comments such as “The sea does not need lions in it / needless elephants and bears . . .” to inspire the reader to imagine the play of constellations reflected on the water’s surface. Through the use of negation, Koulouris creates a tension that holds her verses aloft over a current of images, repeatedly reminding the reader to examine the alternative potential of what is not, to recognize that “Today of all days / this is the sea with no one in it.”


Koulouris’s first collection of poetry, The sea with no one in it reveals its author’s ability to discover the unexplored within a familiar context by both positing and negating its symbolic potential. The poems exhibit the poet’s vision of the sea as a rich ground for the emerging and subsiding figures it calls forth to the imagination.

An Interview with the Poet

with J. Scott Bugher

After checking out Georgia Kreiger's review of The sea with no one in it, I thought I'd see if the author would like to chat with Split Lip for a little while. The Canadian-Australian poet agreed, and we are grateful. Her poetry shakes things up quite a lot in the world of Split Lip since we are prone to publish mostly narrative poetry, but in Koulouris' case, tone trumps the narrative. Voice and imagery are the dominant ingredients of her work. It's as if she paints pictures with words, and after reading the book, it is clear she thinks visually since she often alludes old masters of the fine arts. Let's see what's up with the poetry and her work.


Thanks for taking time to rap with Split Lip, Niki. First, let's get down to it. We duked out our arguments for and against narrative poetry earlier this year. If you don't mind, share with our readers your take on poetry. Why do you find more interest in tone than you do the narrative?


Thanks so much for taking an interest in my work Scott. I love reading both narrative and non-narrative poetry but I’m compelled to write the latter. Tone and mood are good ways to describe what I gravitate towards as a writer. I’m satisfied once a poem has conveyed a mood much like a piece of music or an artwork can convey a mood. I’m drawn to images and the aesthetics of syntax. I love words and the way they look and sound next to each other, their connotations. There are great stories out there too and music and art can tell stories as well, of course, but that’s best left to writers, musicians and artists who are drawn to that.


I approach writing much like painting. Why does someone paint the way they do? Why do they choose particular subjects? It’s their DNA. The way I make marks on paper with a pen is conducive to using metaphor and setting a mood rather than telling a yarn. Part of it is even choosing words because they look good in a row. That’s just as important as the imagery and sound of the poem. A poem’s got to look, sound and resonate like it’s meant to be. It’s got to hit the jackpot. A reader’s got to be able to read it more than once and discover new things about it each time.


What is it that inspires you to write lyrical poetry. Do your present experiences as image-heavy metaphors? Do the poems protest or favor certain subjects? Are your words arranged to express any specific emotions?


I have to be impressed by something to write. Usually it’s an art work or the body of work of another artist. It can be something I see or hear. Maybe a word or a line I hear somewhere or some music. So I start writing and I really don’t know where I’m going with it. I decide later on. If it’s not working I shake it up. I often turn to either rhyme or metaphor or aesthetics to solve problems when a poem is not quite working. One can also learn a lot from poetry with a formal structure even if it’s not one’s goal to write that way. The process is kind of like painting really. If you change one thing sometimes you have to change another to get a picture to work. Why does a picture or piece of music work? People like pictures or a particular type of music or they don’t. You can get into a discourse about it but initial responses usually last. Poems are the same – all the elements I mentioned should to pull together – sound, images and aesthetics.


We're always interested in the creative process here at Split Lip. Would you mind explaining how you take a concept and craft a poem out of it?


I start with inspiration. Ideas and plans are cyanide to me. I just write then decide what to do with what I’ve got later. Each poem is different, so I can’t really say. Very few of them arrive like dictation. Mostly I have to labor over them. I probably use less than 1% of what I write. A writer should write copiously but never be satisfied with any of it. It’s kind of like jazz where writing becomes like practicing and getting used to the instrument and then finally you can improvise and have fun. A top gig is the poem.


Putting a poem together can also be like making a diorama. One can add things and take things away and rearrange till one finally gets something that makes poetic sense. I’d rather invent an esoteric object for which someone has to find a use than design an object with a use in mind. That’s how I like to approach poetry initially.


Once I have a draft I have to challenge every single word. If I think I’ve found a good word then I make myself think of at least 20 more and, without fail, a better one comes up. That’s been my advice to myself.


Do you afford your works time for revision? How do you know when a piece is complete? Do you let it sit or 'breathe' for a while before coming back to it?


Absolutely. I do need a “cooling off” period. The longer it is the better. Every single word in a poem matters. You can spend days trying to find the right word. It’s likely I’ll revise some of my published poems in the future as well. Poems, like humans, can’t be perfect. I’d rather have written fewer poems that I hope are half decent than have a large body of work out there. I’m pretty slow. Makes me wish I could triple my lifespan.


Who are some poets who have influenced you the most? Besides those who favor lyric, do you have any narrative poets who fit in your batch of favorites?


There are so many and here are the ones I can remember this minute: Wallace Stevens is a big influence. I enjoy reading Anne Sexton, William Blake, Adrienne Rich, Louise Gluck, Richard Wilbur, Fernando Pessoa, Carol Ann Duffy, William Matthews, Robert Lowell, Wisława Szymborska and Elizabeth Bishop.


Of the epic narrative poets, Coleridge has been a big influence. I’ve been influenced by Richmond Lattimore’s translations of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, which I grew up reading. I’m keen to explore more translations. Christopher Logue’s contemporary adaptation of the Illiad is an influence as well. David Rakoff’s last work, his verse novel, is a work I’m enjoying too - Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish.


Now that your first book is out, what are your plans? Anything new in the works, or will you be focused on promoting this collection for some time?


I’ll be promoting the collection for a little while, since The sea with no one in it, my first book, was just launched on March 10 in Toronto. I’ve also recently featured in a few reading series there. I’m excited to be doing a mini-tour of B.C. in April 2015. I don’t write full time and book-related activities and admin take up a fair amount of time. I’m really looking forward to getting into the writing zone again.


With that, I think we'll call it a wrap. Anything else you'd like Split Lip followers to know about?


I’m going to submit to Split Lip once I have new material, of course. I’ll do my damndest to get in!


Sounds good. Thanks again, Niki, for discussing your work and poetry in general with me.


I appreciate your asking. Thanks!