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