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The Poet: The Life of Salomėja Nėris (1904-1945) Expressed Through her Diary and Poems -- A Play

Lithuanian actress Birutė Mar has perfected the genre of the solo performance. In her play, Poetė (The Poet), which premiered April 20, 2007, and is now on the Lithuanian stage once again, Birutė Mar raises a rhetorical question: Should a poet of unusual talent be remembered for her art or judged for her politics? Since Lithuania reinstated its independence in 1990, Salomėja Nėris, once considered a classic Soviet poet for her infamous poem, “Ode to Stalin,” and for casting her vote as a delegate in the Supreme Soviet for the incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union in 1940, is now remembered as a traitor. Mar’s play raises poignant questions about the nature of art and politics: Should a poet be judged for her poetry or for her historical role in the demise of her own country?

Salomėja Nėris’s tender subtly artistic poems on love, on her homeland, on the nature of human emotion, ring out melodiously on stage performed by Birutė Mar. The poet’s intoxicating words contrast with harsh condemnations that blast through on loudspeakers throughout the play, wrenching the viewer out of dreamlike complacency. The audience is forced to contend with the reality of the poet’s legacy. One of the judgments condemns Salomėja Nėris to the death penalty, were she still alive a hundred years after her birth.

And yet, Birutė Mar casts no judgments. She leaves the audience to decide.

The message the performance delivers is heart wrenching. Where does one draw the line between poetry and politics? And what happens if the poet ends up on the wrong side of history? During the years of the independence movement (1988 – 1991) the words of poets who were active members of Sąjūdis– Marcelijus Martinaitis, Justinas Marcinkevičius, Sigitas Geda – rung out across the vast expanses of peaceful protestors who’d gather in Lithuania’s public squares with the common goal of seeking independence from the Soviet Union. These historic moments are a testimony that a poet’s words and intentions carry weight in Lithuania.

The unanswerable question raised throughout the play is why? And yet, Salomėja Nėris was not the only poet of her times to choose Soviet might over the will of Lithuanians to live in freedom and democracy. Moreover, collaborators were many in those times. Perhaps this is the source of how uncomfortable people feel about Salomėja Nėris’s betrayal. Could it just be easier to point fingers rather than to confront one’s own conscience? Is the poet a scapegoat?

The Litvak poet, Matilda Olkinaitė, who was murdered in the Holocaust in the summer of 1941, wrote about her beloved Salomėja Nėris, her role model as a young poet, in her diary on August 29, 1940:

“Times are awful. The world has spilled out into the streets. People shove a red handkerchief into their pocket and shout. Salomėja Nėris, Liudas Gira—I cannot fathom how normal people can writer that way. There are banners and more banners everywhere. The biggest communist, if there were such a one who is a cultured person, would not be able to stand it. I often think about how people lack culture. It’s sad. Could it even be possible for communism and its ideology to be expressed in poems that are not dominated by destruction, but by creativity, not by hatred, but by love?”

From this 18-year-old girl’s diary entry we know that Salomėja Nėris’s shift away from a lyric poet who expressed love for Lithuania to one slavishly serving the occupiers – writing Odes to Stalin, no less – got under the skin of people alive at that time. Yet, Matilda was dead ten months later after writing this entry, and her poems were relegated to obscurity for half a century. Why was she condemned? Because she was a Jew. Because after the Soviets, the Nazis occupied Lithuania.

The lives and deaths of these two fierce women poets reveals how little we contemporary people can understand emotionally about the complexity of World War II and the postwar era. We can only discern what we can from fragments of diary entries and poems that survived. What to do with the powerful emotions that the poetry, diaries, and lives of these poets stirs in us now, almost a century later?

This brilliant performance by Birutė Mar, in which she embodies the heart and soul of the poet, conflicted by history, damned by some and beloved by others, leaves us with that eternal question that we all must answer for ourselves: Just where, precisely, do we draw the line between politics and art…

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