Returning the icons

Winter is ending, the ice is cracking
under the boat as they carefully lift

the shrouded paintings onto the shore.
They’ve reached Siberia: a tiny island

where prisoners have lived, and monks,
each cradling in the lightless days

the glimmer of a memory, a liturgy,
a poem learned by heart.

She’s carrying one of the icons
under her coat, as if to protect it

from cold, as if to keep it secret
as her father once did, smuggling

holy pictures out of the country
into safekeeping in his English church.

She remembers stories of babies in wartime
who stay in the womb for more than a year

until danger has passed, and she smoothes down her coat
and knows that beneath it, close to her skin

is her favourite Madonna and Child. And now,
in the white beginnings of spring

with the gulags all gone, the barbed wire
down, and fresh paint on the domes

so they gleam in the sun, the icons
are back from their exile:

and all through the Orthodox chants
the radiant haloes of saints

are stroked and blessed and kissed
and it seems in the candlelit dark

that all those hands and lips you see
are flickering with gold.

From The Lantern Bearers, © Elizabeth Burns