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Review: The Marathon Poet by Ake Hodell, translated by Fia Backstrom

The Marathon Poet

By Ake Hodell

Trans. By Fia Backstrom

Ugly Duckling Presse

Lost Literature Series

November 2020

Swedish poet, artist, activist, and avant-garde musician Ake Hodell was a major figure in his native land for nearly a half-century. He wrote books, recorded albums that are considered precursors to “Techno-pop” (though considerably less understandable), made art installations, performed on stage and on the radio, and took part in political demonstrations for various anti-war and environmental causes.

The Marathon Poet is an odd combination of poetry, prose, photos and drawings, and political commentary. This translation by Fia Backstrom does its best to make Hodell’s work accessible to a general audience. The language throughout is easily understood and works well using modern idiomatic English. But I must confess, it gets by me on many levels. Which, in this case, is not the fault of the translator.

The book is built around a long first-person narrative poem of nine “episodes” that describes a surreal marathon race where the poet runs for 42 km while wearing a recording device strapped to his chin. The racecourse is a mix of places, switching from Greece to landmarks in the poet’s home country. Much of the poem refers to people and events in both modern-day and long-ago Sweden and these references require (for this reader) many trips to the extensive Glossary at the back of the book. But even after a thorough study of this helpful section I never quite got the whole picture of the poem. Some amusing images show up now and then. There is a rhythm and flow that is appealing, and the sound of the poem is often pleasing or pleasantly jarring. However, I didn’t find any of the connections I look for in poetry – connections to the heart, gut, or eye.

Between episodes of the framework poem are some short stories, memoir pieces (that may or may not be real), poems ascribed to historical and fictional people, various types of pictures, and an extensive essay/memoir/diary called the “Snoring Symphony” which contains several pages of annotated sheet music. Many of these pieces can be followed and there’s a strong thread of sarcastic social commentary throughout. But Hodell seemed to delight in throwing in surreal touches to keep the reader off-balance.

There is an exceptionally fine introduction to the collection by the translator as well as the previously mentioned Glossary. These are both crucial to understanding the book. But I, having a sieve-like memory, found it annoying to be constantly checking these helpful sections as I worked my way through the pages. Many readers would not have this problem.

This book is a fine introduction to an important Swedish poet of the mid to late twentieth century. His experimental and challenging attitude, playfulness, strong social conscience, and disregard for the conventional are worth the investment in time and brain exercise. Mr. Hodell was an original thinker and an artist capable of stirring up reactions that led to social awareness and even to self-examination.

James Bourey is the author of The Silence Between Us

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