Agnė Žagrakalytė (b. 1979) is the author of three books of poetry and two books of prose. She has a truly unique poetic voice that is easy to recognize. One of the most important topics of Žagrakalytė's poetry is womanhood, in all of its various forms and transformations. Her texts often play with social and cultural stereotypes. This is alongside other significant themes in her work, like relationships between men and women, living abroad (the poet has been living in Brussels for several years), and her relationship with her homeland. Žagrakalytė's poetry is a creative force of nature filled with details and colloquial language. Her playfulness, lightness and eroticism set her apart in the broader field of Lithuanian poetry. The heroine of her poems is audacious, unpredictable, open, ironic – and very alive.

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by Elžbieta Banytė

Agne Zagrakalyte review 02Agnė Žagrakalytė, Štai, (Vilnius: Tyto Alba, 2017)

“Here's my little, thin book,” I murmur diminutively, much as Žagrakalytė might, while flicking through Agnė Žagrakalytė's barely 60-page poetry collection, Štai. I also consider how we use “Štai” (there) in everyday speech: with pride (“there, look at what I accomplished!”), when showing something to someone (“There, look at that castle”), with praise (“look at that beauty!”), when giving something to someone (“There's your coffee”), when proving things (“There's your answer”), and sometimes when we curse people in our minds (“that serves you right, you bastard”) while simply sticking to “there you go” out loud. It is likely that, in a way, all of these meanings have been connected and intertwined in this latest collection of poetry by Žagrakalytė, who is a poet, a prose writer, and the winner of several significant poetry awards in Lithuania.

The cover of the book is emphatically calm, with only three colors—black, white and magenta. And, of course, the various shades of these colors occur within the book. The shapes are sleek— bold bubbles that imperceptibly draw two epithets to mind while you look at them, the first being “elegant” and the second being “psychedelic.” She went for the whimsical pose on the front cover of her first book of poetry, Išteku (I’m Getting Married), as well as the provocative gun pointed at a plush toy at the end of her second collection, Visa tiesa apie Alisą Meler (The Whole Truth about Alisa Meler). Everything here is bubbly: it seems round, finely crafted, innocent, but also very psychedelic.

As we read, we find the things that set Žagrakalytė's poetry apart and that her Lithuanian literary admirers have already learned to love: playful intonations, feminine sexuality at various times hidden or overt, and bouts of anger in which one might tell the entire world to go to hell. Her vocabulary decidedly conflicts with Lithuanian literature, or rather, with its usual classical canon. If it sometimes refers to this canon, it is only with a sprinkling of loss or incompleteness, or when it is transformed, ironized, or placed in an unusual context:

gardens of rue in even rows,
and ties in the attic
release a heavy scent
of undying forget-me-nots
          (p. 34, “Where I’ll Go, I’ll Go, Where I’ll Be, I’ll Be”)

It is the personal relationships with Lithuanian culture, which it promises never to forget, the sirens of Brussels, her children, and her sexuality that form the primary axis of this book. Sometimes, it almost seems like there's too much of the personal, and you get the unpleasant feeling of intruding upon the life of someone you don't know but who is nonetheless very close and understandable to you. Sometimes, in a very direct sense, you may even find yourself digging through their underwear. The lyrical subject of the collection hasn't simply been ameliorated into an abstract idea as a textual figure— it's a very realistic and life-like one that contains many aspects of the author's individual alter egos: aspects of emigrants and mother-poets recur throughout. Žagrakalytė indeed lives in Brussels and indeed is raising children there, which is why we get the impression that this was written about her—the “real” her, Agnė in the flesh. This is probably why her poetic form is so everyday, life-like, and unadorned. For a reader used to an abundance of metaphors, which can hide and cover everything like a thick layer of brocade curtains, her matter-of-fact, tangible, and everyday speech can seem either excessively one-dimensional or simply non-literary, incapable of lifting the faces of life—fevers, sex, raising children, cut fingers, preparing for Christmas—to an ostensibly higher, more poetic and sublimated level. Žagrakalytė's poetry is impolite, and there isn't much here for those who adore “pure ideas” or “language unsullied by the mundane.” It is clear that, rather than creating the juxtaposition that the cover suggests, Štai is somewhat of an extension of her previous two poetry collections. The first, Išteku, is her wild, raving youth, while the second, Visa tiesa apie Alisą Meler, is an attempt to express the existence of a married woman and the naturally occurring limits inherent in motherhood and family that inevitably restrict her animalistic passion. The collection being discussed, Štai, identifies a certain reconciliation with the self in the lyrical subject—an (at least partial) integrality totally lost in the schizophrenic Alisa Meler.

Of course, the lyrical subject is not and cannot be uniform: she is a Lolita-like beloved, a teenager injecting “the blood of grasses,” and later “finding a word” among them, exchanging “lover for lover” (p. 36–37); she is a mother-poet who cannot write down the six poems that just ran through her head because her children are running wild (p. 33); she is a passionate lover (p. 21), and she is a watchful observer of her environment (p. 24). However, there is no schizophrenic division here: all of the roles seem to coexist—and though they sometimes make communication difficult and make her anxious, her poetry is not full of darkness or hopelessness. Indeed, the opposite is true. The greater part of Lithuanian poetry, which I usually enjoy very much, is a drug against the joy and optimism of life. Žagrakalytė proves that things can be different, that we can write interesting texts without the usual eternal, existential grief, the stern-faced tragedy, and without complaining about everything—starting with one's self.

The vocabulary dominant in this collection hasn't been refined or smoothed out. Perhaps this is my inner teenager, who has something in common with the adolescent attitude in some of the poems in Štai, revealing herself, but I like the title “Kurvų lizdas” (A Nest of Whores)—yes, with all of the quotes and parentheses. I like all of the pussies and holes, of which there are many here. Because that's how we, regular people, speak. I don't know anyone who'd ever deign to use a richer or rougher word, especially when they want to ironize something or distance themselves from the thing being discussed, and that is something this lyrical subject does not avoid. “Apie meilę be savistabos” (About Love without Self-Observation)—that's how the author described her collection, Štai. In Lithuanian literature written by men, these small deviations were legalized by the “living classic” poet, prose writer and essayist Sigitas Parulskis, one of the most important independence-era literary figures in Lithuania. In Lithuanian women's writing, the cornerstone was apparently laid by Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė, who left for America after World War II. Her Metūgės (Sprouts) was once denounced as an ostensibly immoral book. Pūkelevičiūtė, by the way, is mentioned in a text from Žagrakalytė’s second collection entitled “Why I Stopped Writing:”. She is the only known poet (besides the author, of course) whose surname was written down in Štai, which emphasizes her exclusive importance to the lyrical subject and, it would seem, to the author.

The writing of Štai for this woman was not a pathetic sacrifice on the altar of motherhood: it is a breakthrough of the unconscious, of something that hides unnoticed and that is therefore much more dangerous—a “snake in the grass” (p. 7). In addition, it's no secret that the author (fortunately) continues to write poems, at least, judging by her social network accounts. Many of the texts in the collection were written in 2008–2009, and in an interview, the author admits to having put them into a single book and edited them in one night. Perhaps that's why the book is unexpectedly whole; as I mentioned, though the lyrical subject is multi-faceted (this makes it very convincing, unlike someone floating over the heads of us simple, mortal folk), reading this collection creates the impression of a single, whole, playful and ironic everyday intonation, which may repulse some readers and attract others. Sometimes, the flow of speech seems uncontrolled or especially kitschy, despite existing in the kitsch-ironizing context created by the collection, but the amateurish poetry generally does not at all make it difficult to enjoy the electrified madness of the work.

The poetry's conditional intimacy and “idealessness” are established by the collection's very structure, as it is framed by two short texts. These express a sort of declaration: “I am only afraid / Of speed / A different you / Does not frighten / Me” (p. 5). Whom does the poem refer to? Both the reader and the lover. Žagrakalytė's poetry is sufficiently intermedial in the sense that it invites us to write “poem cartoons” (p. 27) and for a sort of theater whose “fourth wall” is clearly broken. For example, in the poem “Dabar” (Now), it is clearly stated that the “babbling, happy, stupid, happy” person found by the maid is indeed the reader with the book (probably this one) still in hand (p. 27). Therefore, communication with the reader is doubtlessly important. If we hold to the conclusion that “you” in the texts surrounding these poems is both the reader and the lover, we fear completing our reading and the dismissive speed of our reception. We fear nothing else. Indeed, it is openly declared that these poems don't contain anything serious—nothing that the lyrical subject would have rationally considered or understood—no deep or grand ideas:

...I wasn’t thinking anything,
I never thought anything, I speak
about how it is, and I don’t
get my knickers in a twist.
          (p. 6)

This is one of the great questions about knowing yourself, which every reader probably answers sooner or later—how much does poetry support the idea and the permission to stop thinking and simply go your own happy way (p. 6)? Such declarations can seem empty and even meaningless: why write if you don't think anything? Why should I read this if you haven't thought about anything? That makes it just empty words and empty poetic prose. However, the insightful lyric subject immediately addresses this issue: “I signed the paper refusing vaccines for rabbies and vanity, / for rabid vanity is beautiful to me” (p. 39). This book contains both rabid madness and vanity—take it, reader, if you miss poetry that doesn't philosophize and doesn't cry. But know this: by reading it, you're indicating that you don't want any vaccines for rabies or vanity, either. your social media marketing partner



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