Ieva Toleikytė (b. 1989 Vilnius) is a 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 children‘s day centre. Her literary debut was a collection of short stories Mustard House in 2009. Her second book, Slippery Red Palace was published in 2020 and it was awarded with Young Yotvingian prize.
A Plastic Bag, a Girl, and a Whale
In late September, we spent time with Ieva Toleikytė at her artist residency in Marcinkonys, located in an old parsonage deep in the forest. It was a warm, sunny day, full of sounds, sights, and smells, and Ieva talked to us about her daily walks in the forest, lake swimming, the deserted and restored parsonage building, and translation. She showed us around the old farmhouse and its cozy rooms the scent of which reminded me of a sauna. One of the rooms, the parson’s bedroom, had become home to a colony of ants. Ieva’s modest room had a bed, a table with books and a computer full of drafts, and jars with cranberries, cowberries, and dried boleti. Up to that time we had only conversed with Ieva in cultural or urban surroundings, so when I found myself in a remote and strange space, I felt as if I had entered her fantasy world, for her poetry also has a quality of mystique and the interplay between nature and civilization.
Ieva Toleikytė made an early literary debut at the age of 20 with her first book Garstyčių namas (Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House, 2009). The book was critically acclaimed, and everybody held their breaths for what was coming next from the promising author. The excerpts from a novel, published in the cultural press, were very encouraging. On the occasions when we met, we sometimes comforted each other about the first novel that never seems to be finished, the novel that raises everyone’s expectations yet never seems to attract enough willpower to get finished. As she was having this literary battle with herself, Ieva accomplished many other things – taught at a university, began translating novels from the Danish, was a singer in a band, travelled, and wrote poems and essays (the releases of which were as much acclaimed). Last year, she finally published her second book Slippery Red Palace – not a novel, but a collection of poetry, which instantaneously garnered prominent literary awards and accolades. It is yet another proof that Ieva Toleikytė is capable of literary success and is an interesting and talented writer.
Upon opening the book, the reader sees a personal photo – a little girl is sitting on the grass with a plastic bag behind her, the camera, ironically, focused on the bag and not the girl. That piece of litter is “perhaps in the Atlantic / in the huge stomach of a whale / overgrown with cockleshells and seaweeds / travels a dull supermarket bag / in which I once brought back food or clothes / useless, meaningless, stale, / very slowly and patiently / inviting death / in the Atlantic… / if I could imagine it / that would be the same as / comprehending infinity” (p. 64). This poem concludes the book; thus the meagre plastic bag, having journeyed from childhood to the whale’s innards, frames the whole book. In her poetry Ieva weaves elements of civilization and nature with intimate and confessional stories and the common human responsibility brought on us by the Anthropocene era.
Elemental slugs and frogs in heat and the decomposing human body are objects of both fascination and fear. It is all viewed through a cultural lens, while the lyrical subject ponders the nature of physical bodies – slippery red palaces for parasites – and how much can one write about corpses: “to gain access to a morgue / to see a real corpse / stiff, strange, of use to nobody / with a halo of chemical odor / I am 100% sure that I would stop writing about them / about death, flesh, and other horrors / perhaps I would finally see – – – / a blinding light would flood my breezy cellar / with tiny flaming tongues of azure / perhaps I would finally see what should be spoken about / and what has to be left out.” (p. 31). According to literary critic Ieva Rudžianskaitė, “the book insists on showing us the grisly side of nature and presents us with images that should not at all be pleasing to the eye, yet I. Toleikytė portrays them in a truly attractive light, and in doing so demonstrates the transformative power of literary language: that which usually provokes disgust becomes lovely in the poetic reality […]. The collection not only gives us a striking image of natural phenomena, but it also subtly weaves in ethical questions that provoke us to reconsider the human relationship with nature and the idea that the way we react to various occurrences reflects how we view ourselves.” (“Ežerų ir minčių rūpužės,” Šiaurės Atėnai, 2020-09-25).
Slippery Red Palace is also a great gift to literary scholars who are keen on working with the method of ecocriticism (the author has mentioned that she was engaged in ecocriticism in her university years). The book is so far receiving outstanding reviews on Goodreads, with readers describing it as strange, occasionally scary, familiar, poetry reminiscent of the rain and the forest, while one particular reader was delighted to see in these works the world of a woman that is educated yet not detached from nature. True, the reality created by Ieva Toleikytė is one far from those who run with the wolves or the discourses that are concerned with spirituality, traditional femininity, or motherhood.
I feel a little bit of envy for those who haven’t yet read these poems, and I also must admit that it is no easy task to review a book that I really liked. If I were not me, I would still probably think that as much as there are many good poems “about the soul,” I have never read one quite like this. It definitely deserves a quote: “my skeleton is my friend: / my only one, irreplaceable, most faithful / it asks nothing of me, I could barely notice it […] my living essence, solid and fragile / like a soul” (p. 33).