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Ieva Toleikytė (b. 1989 Vilnius) – writer and translator of Danish literature. After completing a degree in Scandinavian studies from 2015-2018 she taught Danish language, Scandinavian literature and literary theory at Vilnius University. Since 2017 she has been volunteering at Angel of Hope childrens' day centre. Her literary debut was a collection of short stories Mustard House in 2009. This poem is from her second book, Slippery Red Palace (2020).

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Ieva Toleikyte review 02

Ieva Toleikytė, Slidus raudonas rūmas, - V.: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2020

Ieva Toleikytė’s name is well-established in the Lithuanian literary scene. She is an excellent translator (Toleikytė translates from Danish) and an established writer. In 2009, her debut book Garstyčių namas (House of Mustard) won the First Book Contest and was included in the Top 12 Most Creative Lithuanian Books of that year. Now, Toleikytė comes forth with another debut, this time a poetic one, and she seems to have delivered another success.

Toleikytė’s first poetry book bears a title that is intriguing and, meaning-wise, even a little frightening: Slippery Red Palace. Considering the striking visual and the subtitle about the three layers of the heart, the meaning of this metaphor may be explained in this way: the palace encompasses the human body, the heart, and the blood that heart pumps. The material being, after it has been placed into the context the physical realm, is nevertheless intangible and imperceivable—we cannot know the insides of our “palace” unless we see it on a screen or through the microscope, or based on studies conducted on another body (such as those used by anatomic pathologists and medical students), through pictures serving scholarly needs, and of course, through art. I saw Toleikytė’s book as a way to grant bodies to various shapes of being, to bring Otherness closer and investigate it, to examine nature’s primal force, which is never absolutely tamed. Yet it also establishes and reflects the Self, turning the body into a mediator, an intermediate link, a slippery boundary between the natural and the cultural.

Reading the book, I first noticed the subtle and nuanced way that Toleikytė captures the balance between life and growth, and on the other side, decay and cessation. Toleikytė’s poetry houses both cemeteries and the former life reflected on their tombstones, corpses as well as “a white, soft, warm body,” “slaggy slugs,” and “fine little flowers a la Botticelli,” a “red, hot, whirring heart” and still water, wherein life may also be found. In her poems, where a being rests on death’s doorstep, spaces is also occupied by creation and decay as well as by vitality and stillness. A particular aspect of Toleikytė’s poetry is the establishment of a different, interesting, and varied relationship with nature. There is no banal dichotomy, no separation between, and no exaltation of nature and/or culture. For example, even though the subject emphasizes that slug copulation has more influence “than a Klimt painting, smeared in golden pap and besprinkled with gold dust” (“Kiss,” p. 20), she concedes that without having seen the Klimt painting, she would see slug copulation in a different light.”

Toleikytė’s poems present us the archetype of the curious child, characterized by self-reflection in tandem with observation of the world. The lyrical subject (it feels right to regard it as female) allows herself to experience a whole range of sensations and thoughts associated with nature’s strangeness and gloom, including distance and proximity to this strangeness. The poems contain bewilderment stemming from discovery, or more precisely, a bizarre and giddy excitement diluted with fear. The hero(ine) of these poems discovers the secrets of body and world, its apertures, latitudes, ravines, and pits that hold the familiar other. Here, poetry is born from discovering disgust and abnormality, while the metaphor is created by the writer biting into and fully experiencing the overwhelming sensation of how “fleshy” the state of being really is:

I read the advert
that 96% of deaths are associated with parasites
every human has them, but there are good ones
and the bad ones that poison –
your intestines, liver, brain, and heart
thin, handbreadth, white worms
wriggling in an open skull
I read that and began to realize for the first time:
in my body live many other
beings that do not dream, do not grieve
do not regret anything”
(“Request/Writing,” p. 30).

Several poems contain the need to “turn horror into a friend” and state that “it is not best to cower from horror, instead one must pet it,” even if it is impossible to do, having met a cyclops “in the form of an old flame.” But it must be said that there are no banal efforts to tame or conquer these strange forms of the universe (as we once did dogs or horses). Nature is invited inside the human and experienced on a personal, authentic level, with an appropriate sense of honesty and respect. These poems make us realize that there are many things we cannot experience through a screen, that there is no “TV show” for this, and that the only means of aid here come from an attentive and respectful gaze, creativity, and an openness to a world that is at once strange, disgusting, and beautiful.

In her review of Slippery Red Palace, Monika Bertašiūtė mentions and discusses the concepts of the Anthropocene and ecocriticism and the impact that these concepts have on Toleikytė’s poetry. I believe that this approach is a relevant, accurate, and possible reading of Toleikytė’s texts (albeit not the only one). One such poem, one of the closest to these topics and one of the most striking on a personal level, is “Little Beard of Steel.” It reveals, in a nuanced, sincere, and personal way, the consequences that an individual’s activities and demands (or whims) have on another being, and even on the whole ecosystem of being: “the deal is that the exemplar of my ideals / has a little grey beard of steel / half of my life I’m trying / to push a straw through a needle’s eye / I get mad when I fail, I cry” (“Little Beard of Steel,” p. 50).

In relation to the manifestations of nature, the body, and various creatures, as well as the discourse of observing these manifestations, Toleikytė’s poetry espouses honesty and  openness to a person’s psychological states. In self-study, just like when observing nature, candor and a sincere relationship become the most important aspects of the process. Yet this manifesting of personal experiences is not solipsistic or self-centered, but recognized in the experiences of the reader and the Other. The poems deal with the author’s relationship to poetry, providing a critical outlook on the identity of the writer: “I also published an awful lot / I don’t know what the editors thought, why they published it / I was ashamed in a few weeks’ time / I was indecently greedy, I madly desired / interesting friends, backers, and recognition / I liked to flirt” (“Price of Survival,” p. 8). What’s also interesting is that even though Toleikytė’s poetry resembles the confessional genre, her poems are not a (mere) panacea or a means of personal healing or therapy—their language is full of deceit, severity, and oddity, and it not intended to appeal to the masses and has not been written for personal gain (read “One Glyptotheque Visitor”).

The author is not afraid to be open to complex experiences and bewildering emotions. Emotions that are considered to be negative are also brought to the fore—for example, the destruction and construction that arises from anger. This is especially evident in the poems “Truth Does Not Hide but Penetrates,” “Condensatio: Slow Lessons,” and “Anger Gnome.” I am very glad to have found strong and unfiltered emotions, anger, and even aggression in contemporary Lithuanian women’s poetry (I speak of the things traditionally considered proper and improper of “girls doing poetry”).

And though in the poem “Request/Writing” the subject thinks that if she ever sees a real corpse in a morgue she will perhaps understand what she “ought to talk about / and what not to,” I am glad that she speaks of these very things, of this flesh and this putrid smell, of the respectful fear and curiosity that it instills, of the desire for bodily clarity, of the colonies of worms and slugs, and of her own justified anger, gloom, and happier moments.

Toleikytė’s poems are also unique and valuable in how the author manages to weave intertextual references to works of literature, film, and art in her poetry. They do not overshadow the essence of the works or their authentic voice, rather helping to associate and connect the experiences, becoming another form of symbiosis and language made up of recognizable codes.

In conclusion, Ieva Toleikytė has come forward with an impressive poetry debut, which reminds us that there are topics yet to be written about (at least in the Lithuanian literary field). The author’s vocal timbre is striking, while her poetry is relevant, raising many questions and considering the possible answers.

 

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

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