Image: Robin Welsh
Karl Larsson, translated by Jennifer Hayashida


A Mexican man sewn into a car seat to confound American border guards; the published prison memoirs of leftist German revolutionaries; the destruction of ancient statues in Iraq: what do these things have in common? What about the nine tracks of a Joy Division concert recording, the rubble where two great statues of the Buddha once stood in Afghanistan, and Andy Warhol’s interminable experimental film Sleep? They all provide rich material for Karl Larsson’s meditations on embodiment, on the ways bodies, artworks, and texts enter the material world and maintain or lose presence there.

It shouldn’t surprise us, given these concerns with spatial experience, that Larsson is both a poet and a visual artist. As a sculptor and installation artist, he has exhibited extensively in Europe, especially in his native Sweden, and taken a keen interest in both the physicality of texts—palimpsest, erased, and overwritten writing is a favorite theme—and the ways in which bodies interact with environments. One piece from a 2012 show, a bronze human head half-submerged in the gallery floor, evokes both a drowning person and a monument in the process of being unearthed. Like Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgian poet and artist who died in 1976 (a year before Larsson’s birth), Larsson is also a great explorer of the structures that mediate our experiences—especially “paratexts,” the writings that accompany the text proper in a book or the objects in an exhibition. ISBNs, in-publication data, explanatory notes, tables of content, indices, and the conventions of layout and display: all are important to Larsson because they act as containers for words and objects, affecting how those things are received in the world. “One usually distinguishes between base and statue/pedestal and bust,” he writes, but he refuses to separate such things. Text and context, object and environment are always a single phenomenon to Larsson. The format of a book determines our relationship to the text just as surely as the pedestal situates us relative to a sculpture.

FORM/FORCE, published in Swedish in 2007 and now available in English, is the first of Larsson’s five books of poetry and makes for a strong introduction to his characteristic themes. Indeed, its very existence as a translation mirrors its themes by reminding readers of how texts exist in multiple contexts. Few activities do as much to make us aware of our global context as does the often-unsung task of literary translation. (The translator, Jennifer Hayashida, is to be commended for her ongoing role as one of the principle conduits, through which formally innovative Swedish poetry makes its way into English.)

Larsson is an explorer of the structures that mediate our experiences and affect how we receive the world.

“What Andreas Baader Said,” the first of the book’s four sections, begins with quotations from the memoirs of the Baader-Meinhof Group, the far-left revolutionaries who terrorized Germany in the 1970s. Larsson shows us how the specific typography of their writing expressed their desire to convert words into force, to give form to themselves as a radical collective entity. Certain phrases are always capitalized (“THE PIGS,” “THE STRUGGLE GOES ON”); stress is also conveyed by looser kerning (“w a r,” “t o g e t h e r”). These typographical idiosyncrasies attempt to control the way their writing enters the world.

Larsson uses the paratext common in book catalogs to emphasize the way Andreas Baader’s writing, embodied in a book, leaves the context of revolution and becomes subjected to the rules of commerce:

a book has a front, a back,
spine, cover, pages
or as the sales people write:
rear board
dust-jacket (dj)
first free end paper (ffep)
(purple) cloth binding
“spine clearly worn from reading.
dj sunned, with tiny tears”

Larsson shows how the embodiment of Baader’s words in book form subjected them to the law, describing how lawsuits regarding his book’s international copyright were used to destroy Baader’s publisher. Much like the revolutionaries themselves, who die in prison, possibly at their captors’ hands, books come across as terrifyingly vulnerable by virtue of their embodiment as physical entities.

Yet “What Andreas Baader Said” does more than explore the capturing of the revolutionaries in their cells and of their ideas in the pages of a book. It cross-cuts the Baader-Meinhof material with documents and descriptions of two disconcerting incidents: a man forcing his body into the interior of a car seat to cross the U.S.-Mexican border and the looting and destruction of Mesopotamian antiquities following the American invasion of Iraq. Again we see the terrible vulnerability of embodiment. The human body contorts itself to evade the forces of power, and an epoch’s worth of human imaginative aspiration crumbles as tectonic plates of power shift around it. We see how borders, laws, and economic need deform the human body, and we see how geopolitical force destroys aesthetic forms we may have mistaken for permanent.

Musical performance is one aesthetic form we don’t tend to think of as permanent. What could be more transient than waves of sound passing through the air? In the second section of FORM/FORCE, “Documentation/Performance (1980)/Re-Listening (2007),” Larsson examines the idea of musical performance as both an embodiment of its moment and as something embedded in multiple forms of commemoration: recordings, memoirs, online fan discussions, and so forth. Larsson takes Licht und Blindheit, a 1980 limited-release seven-inch vinyl by the post-punk band Joy Division, as his source text. The record, something of a fetish object among fans, was made on April 4, 1980, at one of the band’s final live shows. Larsson is at pains to show us what a recording can and cannot capture. Licht und Blindheit gives off many signs of authenticity, from the capturing of an unattributed voice before the show starts muttering “right, we all start when the drum machine kicks in, lads” to an unpalatable shout of “Sieg Heil!” from a fan at the end of the performance (showing how a performance can be kidnapped into a context unintended by the performers; like many punk-affiliated acts, Joy Division attracted an unwelcome fascist fringe element to its shows). The band itself, in Larsson’s version of events, was setting out to document a moment, to give form to the transient:

the group attempts
to articulate four four
nineteen hundred and eighty
the material is so charged
that it revolts within the document
and appears as raw, white sound

The very force of the performance shatters the attempt to tie the moody, angry-sad performance to the Thatcherite moment in recession-ridden 1980 Manchester.

How to feel about a self-destructive flaw that is also the sign of originality?

Larsson juxtaposes the band’s attempt to make their performance into a document of their moment with later attempts to document the performance itself. He examines the extensive fan discourse about the concert, addressing those things that cannot be preserved—the loudness of the event, the press of bodies—and those that can, such as the importance of the band to a generation of largely working-class youth (“joy division convinced me,” said one fan in an online forum, “I could spit in the face of god”). Larsson examines, too, the elaborate packaging of the recording and the various bootlegs of it, including one so accurate that it was only revealed as a fake when the low-quality glue used in the originals began to destroy the sleeve—an occurrence that raises interesting questions about authenticity and archival endurance. What is the status of the performing arts in the age of mechanical reproduction? What to make of a fake that is, in a sense, truer to the original than the original itself? How to feel about a self-destructive flaw that is also the sign of originality?

There’s a subtle analogy in “Documentation/Performance (1980)/Re-Listening (2007)” between the flawed authentic recording and Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, and who hanged himself mere weeks after recording Licht und Blindheit. In both cases, a deficit of some sort became, for fans, a signifier of authenticity. Larsson goes on to contrast the kind of hanging that destroys people—Curtis’s suicide, and the hangings of dissidents in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif and in Germany’s Stammheim prison, where the bodies of members of the Baader-Meinhoff group were found—with another kind of hanging, familiar from Larsson’s own work as an installation artist:

for an artist the word hanging
has the significance of (to hang paintings)
to install an exhibition
and put everything in place, to complete

These lines invite us to think about the strange irony of the documentation of moments of all kinds, including artistic performances: to what degree are they admirable tributes that extend the life of the moment, and to what degree are they entombments and (possibly grotesque) distortions of that which was once alive?

The book’s remaining sections, “Enemy/The Red Shadows/In the Valley” and “Awakened from Sleep,” continue to explore context and embodiment. The first of these sections addresses the destruction by Taliban artillery of two giant, ancient Afghan statues of the Buddha. As Larsson tells it, that sad story is really several stories: a tale of religious intolerance, certainly, but also of the inevitable destruction of all bodies, flesh or stone. It is also the tale of a world that could be enraged by the destruction of artworks yet indifferent to human suffering. Larsson is attuned to the way ideas and beliefs become embodied, and the way those embodiments interact with different explanatory and discursive contexts—sometimes, as in the case of the Afghan Buddhas, destructively. In “Awakened from Sleep” he examines a less tragic instance of the process, looking at the way Andy Warhol’s ideas about media culture led to the filming of poet John Giorno’s body as it slept, and at how the representation of Giorno’s body on film became a touchstone for a whole series of aesthetic controversies.

Larsson collages documentation about migrant smuggling and Middle Eastern political violence throughout FORM/FORCE, showing how both contort and destroy the fragile human body. The juxtaposition of these scenes with his other material underlines the importance of the question of how bodies interact with power. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which addresses similar themes in a more specific context, FORM/FORCE presents few conventionally beautiful or musically poetic phrases. It takes the book as a whole, rather than the individual poem or prose poem, as the unit of composition; its force lies not in the individual detail, but in the accumulation and juxtaposition of incidents. This technique has emerged as an important poetic mode for meditations on the vagaries of bodies, power, and dispossession.