CHINESE NOTEBOOK is a runic book. The poems are like lost clues scribbled in the margin of some other, longer, duller book; they're not pieces of narrative but puzzling, evocative inscriptions. These are poems for those who don't need to be marched along by a firm hand on their shoulder, for the kind of people who will walk an extra block or two to double-check the writing in a store window. Elegantly translated by John Sakkis and Angelo Sakkis, Ugly Duckling Presse's edition of Chinese Notebook is plum red, decorated with a minimal design of varyingly-sized punctuation marks. The book has a simple appeal and visual beauty that eludes most small press productions, but is quite characteristic of the Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling collective, a group which has become a leading force in bringing Eastern and Southern European poetries, historic avant-gardes, and artistic experimentation to a U.S. audience.
Agrafiotis is a polymathic artist, equally engaged with poetry, visual art, and multimedia and intermedia works. His reception in Greece has been mixed, as many more conservative Greek poets view Agrafiotis as overly internationalist and eclectic in orientation. Chinese Notebook is his second book translated into English and comes to us as a bit of a time capsule, since it was originally published in Greek in 1988. But the concerns will be familiar to anyone who's ever wished to find a little empty space in the middle of modern life. Agrafiotis creates an expansive zone of implication and incompleteness around his words. He writes:
instructions for takeoff
investors are brought
within seven centimeters
from the edge
Here Agrafiotis imagines "investors" as people whose imaginations are piqued into flight by some sort of complicated scheme or IPO jargon that they barely understand. Agrafiotis is often inventive in pursuit of a sensual and gentle quietness to adorn his poems. ThroughoutChinese Notebook he gives his reader room to creatively misunderstand, surrounding the poem with white space and occasional idiosyncratically placed punctuation marks:
pressure of the soft sell
pause for the scarcity of
This parenthetical play is sometimes just that, but sometimes introduces a dignified silence, a silence that strolls in no hurry across the page, some pages with only a few lines. Like most of the books I like, it has to be browsed; its meanings can only be stumbled across, not mined out in a rush or worked through like equations.
hurried file clerks
along with rowboats
bring morphing shapes
to the Traffic Convention
sorting the land
in waves and collisions
Who knows? The island culture's collision of land and sea, and the struggle between the urban geometry of grid and crescent and the nautical landscape of tidal crests and eddies, is powerfully evoked in these lines. The fluidity reshapes some of our assumptions about the orderly flow of information:
disengagement of exceptions
"Information Technology," a magic, capitalized phrase that floats over us all, lording over the hapless simplicities of our orality. But Agrafiotis's poem emphasizes not the promise of infinite connections, but rather the discontinuities produced by new layers of mediation. These reflections do not seem over 20 years old; Chinese Notebook's references to "promissory notes in bundles" and "the rerouting of demonstrators" seem to belong just as naturally to 2011 as to 1988. As time capsule or as up-to-date news from the front lines of the multinational economy — either way, the vision is dark. Yet Agrafiotis ends his book with just the slightest hint of optimism, as much as we can hope for in a time when the foreseeable future has been presold:
and the calculators summarize
weak signal of potency.
The persistently public nature of our being is the perpetual radiance and "weak signal of potency" that powers this poetry.
Likewise, the strangest, rarest moments of Chinese Notebook exceed our presumptions about communication:
stitches on white triangle
on velvet tablecloths
the lo gic of te ns io ns.
Here, aesthetics smooth away anxieties, leaving a charged residue that will never explain itself.