Addressing the Sea: Niki Koulouris’s The Sea with no one in it

Niki Koulouris. The Sea with no one in it
Niki Koulouris. The Sea with no one in it. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014.
~Reviewed by E. Martin Nolan


Part One: Poems Without Much In Them

These first twenty poems lack anchor. This might be the idea—to let the poems drift free—but, if so, it’s not working. “As for the sea / it has no number, no colour,” we’re told in no. 14 (the poems are all numbered, and are, for the most part, otherwise untitled). This suggests limitlessness, as does no. 3:

Don’t mention
the sea
her great hide
for she is perfect
without a shield
a torch
an ending

The same goes for no. 8: “not wanting you, the sea / never closes / unlike the sun.” These poems descend from such generalizations, drifting aimlessly to little effect.

Each poem is a long fragmented sentence cut into short lines, allowing the poet to form coherent thoughts, or to start thoughts mid-sentence, as in no. 12:

again no one is snorkelling
in these seas
there are so many
waves, it’s hard to know
where to begin

Perhaps the waywardness in the thought of these poems resembles the sea’s waves, but there is so little to grasp onto that the reader does not know “where to begin.” There are some concrete images—trains, fish, and lions all get repeated mention—but the images do not create tension or evoke precise ideas. Instead, the references drift in and out, as if pulled at random from a shuffled deck of cards.

No. 13 tells us that “the sea does not need lions in it / needless elephants and bears,” nor does it need “4711 / eau de cologne” and “the sea can do without gondolas.” It is not clear why anyone ever asked if the sea needed these things, or if this lack of need matters. Like this section as a whole, the poem comes off as random thoughts cut into lyric-ish lines. One is left to wonder if the sea needs that.


Part Two: Subjects to Focus On

Poems 21-44 immediately contrast Part One. Formally, they are similar—still the long, fragmented, meandering sentences—but now art gives the poems something particular to focus on. No. 30 describes the “right forearm” of an ancient statue as

a severed tusk
taken with what
she is

In these nine words, Koulouris not only evokes the statue, but also injects some meaning into its missing hand. These are not all ekphrastic poems. No. 34 successfully brings an interior perspective into the book—

you never
expected the
end to
bite so

—while nos. 40 and 43 add variety by both extending the line length and shifting the focus to urban settings.

Despite its better second half, though, The Sea with no one in it shoots too high. The book’s final poem claims

you are a fish
in the Seine

the midnight mast
of the brakeless

camped like
the spire
of this book.

Comparing the book to a church is reasonable, given its reverent tone. The problem is that too much of this church isn’t much to look at.

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and essays. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan Magazine. He teaches Engineering Communication at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

Erratum: When this review was initially posted there were a number of formatting errors in the direct quotations which have since been corrected.


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