The Marathon Poet

The Marathon Poet
Åke Hodell
Translated by Fia Backström
Edited by Kira Josefsson
2020

Ugly Duckling Presse
8.25 × 5.25 in. closed
150 pages
Perfect binding
Offset

The Marathon Poet front cover, with a black and white image of the author in a racing bib.

Åke Hodell (1919–2000) was many things: poet, pacifist, anarchist, visual artist, composer, razor-sharp satirist, and one-time fighter pilot. In The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten in the original Swedish), first published in 1981 and newly translated into English by Fia Backström, Hodell presents every side of himself in a heady blend of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation.

The Marathon Poet is a difficult book to describe or categorize because it steadfastly refuses to do only one thing. It could be called autofiction in verse or an artists’ book focused on photography and collage, but it also offers up various pseudo-historical accounts, a dinner menu, and an opera composed primarily of the names of cars. With this crush of ever-changing forms, Hodell presents us with both an unconventionally intimate self-portrait and a vicious dissection of cultural myths: this book is the overflowing stream of his funny, inventive, and righteously angry consciousness.

The Marathon Poet pages 90-91, featuring a "poetic menu"

Fia Backström’s facsimile translation provides not only the text, but also the original imagery and layout of Hodell’s book, and gives some context for the English-language audience with a thoughtful introduction and a glossary explaining Hodell’s intertextual references. Her contextualization also makes apparent her reasons for translating an obscure avant-garde Swedish art-poetry volume from the early eighties today: the poet’s “lifelong militant commitment against white supremacy in all its forms, whether it be the Nazi[s] … or Nixon’s ‘law and order’ administration.” The resurgence of overtly fascist ideology creates an unfortunate parallel between the world Hodell lampooned in 1981 and the one we’re currently living in.

Publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, of which The Marathon Poet is the thirtieth publication, was created to bring the out-of-print, forgotten, and never-before-translated to a wider audience. Between Hodell’s status as a relative unknown in the English-speaking world, his frequent allusions to the Swedish experimental poetry scene and the country’s history and culture more generally, and his penchant for blending fact and fiction, Backström’s remarks are essential to making the work as accessible as it is. She does not overexplain or heavily annotate, which might go against the confrontational spirit of the work; she gives readers only what they need to experience The Marathon Poet for themselves.

The main narrative of The Marathon Poet centers on a fictional foot race between Swedish poets, in which Hodell finds himself the sole competitor after a sobriety test disqualifies all of his fellows. During the race, the poet forgets to breathe, undergoes several hallucinatory out-of-body experiences, visits a couple doctors and restaurants, and encounters figures from throughout history and myth: Virgil, Aphrodite, a stuffy politician named Napoleon, and several of Hodell’s friends and contemporaries.

The Marathon Poet, pages 34-35, with lines from “Episode Three” and a photograph of Hodell

This absurd story, presented in nine “episodes,” is intercut with brief, apocryphal creation myths for some of Hodell’s earlier works. In “From the Memoirs of Cerberus,” Hodell’s earlier poetry/“verbal brainwash” book presentarms is said to have been written while Hodell was in hell. He only returned to our world because his fellow sufferers “begged Cerberus to throw me out of hell and never again let me back in” (59). By the end, the eponymous mythological beast not only releases Hodell from damnation, but agrees to become his publisher.

While Hodell’s ideas and delivery are funny, heavily influenced by vaudeville theater and often possessing the same raucous energy as the best Monty Python sketches, he is interested in more than making the reader laugh. A major throughline of The Marathon Poet, and his body of work as a whole, is a radically anti-militarist and anti-nationalist stance. While the stories, poems, collages, and photographs that make up the book vary in content and composition, they almost all attack the military, imperialism, and conformity more generally.

This near-constant focus on war, violence, and the greed and social structures that cause them drives drastic tonal shifts throughout the work. “Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Military Hat,” the partially-true tale of another Swedish poet living briefly in the United States, begins with a fantastical and relatively cheerful letter from Almqvist to his wife back home and gradually devolves into a cruel, frenetic argument between Almqvist and the owner of the boarding house where he resides, interspersed with brutal depictions of the violence upon which America was built: 

Eighty bloodied heads
were displayed as a spectacle
on the streets of New Amsterdam
where the governor’s mother kicked them like footballs.
These events will recur. Go home, stranger.
There is no hope for this country.

Like much effective satire, Hodell’s pieces sometimes make for difficult reading: just behind or beside each witty observation is a more fundamentally disturbing truth. Even the comparatively lighter sections of verse on the fictional marathon confront existential dread, the limits of the human body, and the influence of militarism and violence in everyday culture. It is in the uncertain space between the joke and the tragedy that Hodell is most at home.

Just as he balances a variety of tones and uses them to create meaning in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, he juxtaposes and blends the visual and textual elements of each piece. Hodell regularly worked in collage both before and during The Marathon Poet, irreverently and effectively mashing up not only disparate images, but various art forms. In one section, a musical score calling for ever-increasing amounts of human snoring runs alongside a prose narrative which is itself frequently interrupted and incomplete.

The Marathon Poet, pages 106-107 with musical score above and narrative below

Hodell also uses the text itself as a sort of collage-space. He keeps the reader off-balance by deviating from the left margin in poems and standard paragraph structures in prose pieces, utilizing found text and pseudo-documentary, writing in a variety of languages and dialects, and constantly shifting his diction from formal to informal and back again.

This impulse toward collage allows him to directly comment on the ways in which a conformist, militaristic ideology has come to influence so many disparate areas of art and everyday life. Revealing the various building blocks and cast-off pieces of European and American culture, sometimes bluntly and sometimes hyperbolically, he forces us to think about the unconscious assumptions and desires underlying many social norms.

The Marathon Poet, pages 78-19: Spirit of Ecstasy Racing Car Opera. Photos on verso, text on recto.

On another level, his approach toward structure and genre simply reflect his personality and beliefs: why would an artist who so despises authority and convention confine himself to any traditional notion of what a book should be?

This wild creative impulse, along with Hodell’s ever-present humor, lend the volume an air of hopefulness despite its bleak subject matter: it is not only an account of the various destructive forces extant in the world, but a creative one in its own right.

When the fictional Hodell is taken to a doctor after the first few miles of his race nearly kill him, the diagnosis is bad: a pages-long list of the various maladies afflicting the poet’s body. When an observer offers to call an ambulance, the doctor responds:

“No, refrain from doing any such thing,”
says Dr. M.C. Retzius
with a quiet smile. “Humor is a state
where the four cardinal fluids of the body are well mixed.
In other words: The Poët is perfectly healthy.”

couplets and questions

Review by Eric Morris-Pusey

couplets and questions
Andrew Shaw
The Silent Academy

couplets
2019
5 × 5 in. closed
78 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

questions
5 × 5 in. closed
2020
58 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

Front covers of two gray, square books: "couplets" and "questions" by Andrew Shaw side by side.

“Imagination,” author John Higgs begins his foreword to Andrew Shaw’s couplets, “isn’t what it used to be.” The statement was true enough when he first put it to paper in February 2019, the world just as full of the mass-produced, the oft-repeated, and the strictly-enforced as it is today. A little over a year later, that sentence is all the more accurate, with many of us confined to or only feeling safe in smaller and smaller spaces — and often finding our imaginative worlds shrinking just as much as our physical ones. Shaw’s couplets and its spiritual sequel questions  are an adrenaline shot for imagination, an inoculation against the lack of it, an invitation to create. They are also, as Higgs notes in his introduction to couplets, a game.

"Couplets" open to a page from John Higgs' introduction, giving whimsical instructions to the reader.

To emphasize these books’ playfulness is not to minimize their impact or imply that their object is (solely) to create fun; like all new experiences, encounters with the poems in Shaw’s books are as likely to be disorienting or upsetting as they are purely delightful. Rather, the books invite us to a sort of Kantian free play of imagination: a boundless, or at least less-bounded, experience of the world in all its surprise and complexity.

Each of the tiny poems in these two volumes had its first incarnation on a small white luggage tag, which Shaw would hang in a public place for an unsuspecting reader to later find — bringing art and poetry from the gallery or bookshop into the “ordinary” world outside and disrupting that ordinariness in the process.

The presentation of Shaw’s books ensures the poems function as well printed and bound as they did on the street. Behind unassuming gray covers, the pages of couplets and questions consist of much more white space than lettering, and forego page numbers or standard capitalization and punctuation — as Shaw says, “Accurate navigation isn’t always as useful as we think.” Each couplet or question is centered, surrounded by the void of the empty page.

questions pp. 18-19.
Verso: "what holds the emptiness behind your moon"
Recto: "how do you hold the shapeless"

To call the great blank space around each of Shaw’s poems a canvas on which the reader can paint their own meaning might be a touch maudlin or oversimplified, but in a way it’s true, too. While any text is necessarily a collaboration between the writer and reader, couplets and questions foster this collaboration more consciously than most.

The juxtaposition between the text and its surroundings, whether the inert whiteness of the page or the gently swaying branches of the tree supporting a tag, serves as a way of simultaneously demanding attention for the text and demonstrating how small that text is when weighed against everything else. This sense of paradox, as in a Zen kōan, invites meaning-making rather than stifling it.

The poems themselves utilize the same hyperfocus and sense of impossibility or contradiction to encourage artist-audience collaboration. In the minimalist tradition of haiku (but without the syllabic and linguistic strictures which Shaw worries lose something in translation) they rely on only a few words to communicate their concepts and images with the reader. Shaw uses specific language but often foregoes broad description, inviting the reader to experience the surreal and sublime in a radically accessible way.

questions pp. 36–37. 
Verso: “how does the center of a stone / become the indefinite echo”
Recto: “how deep in your eye / is the suspending fluid of the sky”

When Shaw writes of “a detailed map / of the loneliest street” in couplets, he knows that the map I picture will differ in almost every way from the one he had in mind when writing the poem. These books succeed in both their profundity and their accessibility precisely because Shaw is not trying to communicate a specific idea or experience of his own, but inviting readers to more imaginatively and playfully encounter theirs. Even the process of reading can be re-framed: the lack of pagination means that there is no correct way to approach Shaw’s works, that opening to a random page and spending ten minutes or an hour with whatever you find or don’t find there is perfectly true to his process and intention.

The game of couplets and questions, in other words, is consciously designed for two or more players. Shaw goes first, writing a small poem that describes or asks us to consider something that we can’t experience in a strictly literal way — but we have a role as well: not to answer the question correctly, solve the paradox, or provide a rational explanation, but to be changed by the encounter. As he says in his introduction to questions, “It’s in the not-knowing that authentic self unfolds; habitual thinking is disrupted, and truly new events can take place.”

couplets pp. 38–39.
Verso: “an orphanage of words / beneath your tongue” 
Recto: “the flowers of your lungs / pressed into history”

The sense of collaboration and openness central to both the creation and consumption of these two books does feel truly new, or at the very least incredibly rare — a thoughtful and necessary challenge to the idea that creativity is in some way exclusive. Shaw’s writing and visual presentation encourage us to step outside the world for a moment and view it from a different angle: wonderfully askew.