Poetry and other Reviews
The Sea with No One in It
by Niki Koulouris
Erin, ON: Porcupine’s Quill, 2013
64 pp, $15
by Len Gasparini
Toronto, ON: Guernica Editions, 2014
78 pp, $15
Niki Koulouris is just starting out as a poet. The Sea with No One in It is her first collection. Len Gasparini’s umpteenth poetry work is Mirror Image.
Both employ a Mediterranean heritage that reflects trans-oceanic influences, the Pacific for Koulouris and the Atlantic for Gasparini.
Greek-Australian, now resident in Toronto, Koulouris presents 44 poems that look at the sea, the ocean, or rivers as canvases of sorts, or that look at paintings as fixed, miniature bodies of reflection.
Her free-verse lyrics animate the classic, Greek rhetorical form—metaphor, or the notion of “Deep Image” (as pioneered by Italian-Canadian poet Pier Giorgio Di Cicco), to attend to the ripples—or tides—of associations flowing out of water or maps or paint.
The first poem offers this jumping-off point: “I want to understand the voyage / these qualms beneath my feet.”
The ocean itself is restless travel, unending voyage. A poem addressed to Icarus concludes, “not wanting you, the sea / never closes / unlike the sun.”
Koulouris describes, charts, the seas that matter most to her—the Aegean, the Pacific—but these water bodies prompt meditations on the insubstantial, the insular, the indescribable, the surreal, the elements of mythology.
“in summer there are no / holidays for fish / perhaps they take them / in the spring // … still they must have / recollections / of the steak of Africa, / the broken comma / of New Zealand.”
The poems are suggestions, hints, as difficult to pin down as any fluid: “It was there all along / as if undiscovered / the modern sea / already alive, sawn off / craved by gravel / summoned by the populace / that salvaged pendants / from the surgery of tides.”
One can sight in Kouloris’s work the surrealism of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, but also the fabulous imagination of Leonard Cohen’s Greek-flavoured poems and songs of the 1960s. Indeed, almost any stanza from Koulouris could be inserted into Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Koulouris’s other major subject is visual art, and so there are lyrics conjured by viewing art by Jasper Johns, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Maurice Sendak, etc. Again, as with her focus on water, Koulouris is fascinated by the evident surfaces and fluid depths of paintings.
The poem for Sendak wonders, “are these my parents / swinging from the trees?”
Koulouris’ poems are not final; they remain more ink than print. One regards them as one regards the sea: Ever-shifting reflections.
“I’ve come to expect / Guernica on the / street,” Koulouris writes, referring to the infamous, Nazi bombing of a marketplace during the Spanish Civil War, as well as to Picasso’s famous, surrealistic painting of the atrocity.
But she also provides an inadvertent segue to Gasparini’s newest book, Mirror Image, published by Guernica.
Italian-Canadian, reared in Windsor, Ontario, tutored in New Orleans, and again a Windsor resident after many years a Torontonian, Gasparini has also been a traveller, but very much anchored in the real, the workaday, pop culture plus literature.
Mirror Image conjoins free-verse lyrics, a short story, and memoir vignettes. Gasparini writes about a “jailbait blonde,” a “whole lotta neckin’ goin’ on,” losing virginity at a drive-in movie, and other rock’n’roll hoochie-koo in lines that are clear, fresh, and vigorous.
“From Sputnik to beatnik … those lunatic days…. // When the fifties ended there was nothing but / leftover life to live.”
Gasparini brings to verse the Beat-bravura style of Keroauc, but also the resolute, classical clarity of Dante’s “La Vita Nuova”: “When a woman looks at herself in the mirror / she is two different women.”
It’s easy to overlook Gasparini’s excellence because he pens seemingly simple lyrics about diurnal reality. But, look closer, and one finds simplicity that has been zealously won.
It’s sweet imagism, daddy-o: “Breasted with ripeness, / the orchard oozes apples…. // Perched on a ladder…. // a girl’s bare legs / peep through the foliage.”
The short story and the prose vignettes are wistful meditations on the insatiable fascination with sexuality, even when it is nothing but vague yearnings and lonesome romanticism. The tales are fine renderings, evocations, limning, again, that specific, Gasparini combo of grace and guts.