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Hearing God in Soviet Russia


Voice and candle
(in memory of my mother)

1 On your knees

Easy enough to start feeling your presence —
isn't that why I'm here, eyes raised
to this intricate sky? Though you never
felt fully at home in cathedrals, if free
to plug in to spirit —
finding the speckled marble floors
a touch too cold, a touch too remote,
despite the lavish flowers, their promise
of fragrant heaven.

I doubt if any Renaissance dome
could have placed a cap on your devotion —
you on your knees in your own quiet space,
whispered words bouncing off high ceilings
and scrambled like radio code;
or in the clear acoustics of your tser'kov,
the human scale of a small Russian church,
incense raising the women's voices
as if they were angels' breath.

As you yourself are still breathed into life,
your voice ready to play in my ears, your face
anchored inside my computer, alive
in black and white.
Like this photograph I revisit — you
under a pomegranate tree, old before your time,
the love in your eyes reaching across
unimaginable space.
Voices, incense, lights. Only love
leaving a trace.

2 The sound of God

Like a bell-ringer deaf to everything
except the sound of his bells, you blocked out
the clamour of any religion that tried to shout
in your ears, on the grounds it might
drown out your God.
Before you were twenty you'd turned your back
on the bells of Kiev's Cathedral, never saw
its gold again, except behind your eyes.
Then blinked it away for good.

When ideology smashed the cathedrals,
turned icons into rubble, congregation
into crime — religion fell down in a heap,
or seemed to, on certain days.
Most people believed they knew better:
countless lips kept doggedly whispering
the fine-print headlines of saints.
If the State was a rock, religion flowed round it,
a stream fed from underground;
people sang in their sleep, under snow,
while the State blocked its ears to the sound.

Outposts of Russia sprang up in Berlin,
flourished in Paris, in Rome —
small congregations never in doubt
that their voices had never left home;
emigrants floating free in Europe,
anchoring homeland to sound.

In the end it comes down to silence
and a stillness still more profound.

3 Ashes and dust

Flames light every religion — fire as purification,
annihilation of sin. The Orthodox, too,
respect conflagration, but opt
to be planted in earth. So they can grow back
into their bodies. So they can stand up
at birth.

In the end you turned away from cathedrals,
preferring an underground chapel, long gone,
in a busy city street — a haven
from traffic's hell. A Catholic franchise, but to you
religion was not about borders; their incense
worked equally well. No luxurious flowers,
just a cellar with candles —
coins exchanged for thin sticks of wax,
small nervous flames lighting the dark
like the eyes of a favourite saint;
where you would try to bring even closer
a God never far away.

Your original Church took you back, no questions,
with Russian voices, with clouds of incense,
a brand you could no longer smell.
Whatever all those before you had seen,
none were willing to tell.
In the end it came down to a single candle
you never got around to lighting.
And the lingering echo of bells:
kolokol'chik, kolokol. The end of a war
you'd stopped fighting. 

Michael Sariban headshot in profileMichael Sariban is a Brisbane poet and reviewer who has published four collections of poetry. 

Topic tags: new australian poems, Michael Sariban



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Existing comments

I have to admit that I am not much good at poetry, never quite understanding why the bleeding obvious is not stated up front, and so here too. If this is some praise for the end of Stalinism and the purged church that went with it, then the unpurged church of Putin sems to be happy to operate as co-purger of any hints of democract today. Was it worth the wait? Hardly, corrupt as ever, lined up with the state this time, the Orthodox church just keeps rolling along, not seeking to change a thing, now it's reinstated to its seat alongside and within the state.

janice wallace | 23 October 2012  

Voices, incense, lights. Only love leaving a trace. Poetry is cryptic and revealing at the same time. Politcal affiliations will come and go, but the light still burns.

Jenny Esots | 23 October 2012  

Janice Wallace’s belief that everything should be stated as though it were the “bleeding obvious” is the purported business of journalism and science, but poetry is like language itself, a reminder that the entire universe and us in it are more complex and subtle than the “bleeding obvious”. The “bleeding obvious” is only one aspect of reality. To read Michael Sariban’s poem as a simple political declaration is to ignore what is very obviously the main subject of the poem: it is a tribute to his mother. If you notice, she actually leaves the church where she belongs but doesn’t leave her faith. I would have thought that a fairly strong statement about how an individual will continue despite the forces of state or temporal church. This poem is not directly about church-state relations in Russia, either now or then, so criticism of the poem on these grounds is superfluous to the discussion, whatever the actual validity of Janice’s own views about Russian church-state relations. On that matter, Stalinism wished to destroy the Orthodox Church, for well-documented ideological reasons. When the Soviet fell the new leaders had to reconstruct a Russian identity, and it is not surprising that the Orthodox Church was about the last thing standing that could give meaning to Russian hopes. Putin’s use of the church hierarchy for his own political ends is certainly one of the grave compromises of current Russian history. The church may live to pay dearly for its complicity with Putin. A good to way to appreciate why this has happened is to read the books of Lesley Chamberlain (‘The Philosophy Steamer’ and ‘Motherland’), who identifies in Orthodoxy the original historical roots of their nationalism, a nationalism that the Communists tried to eradicate and supplant with their own People’s Paradise. What I am talking about here though is only background to Michael Sariban’s poem, which in my reading does not have a political purpose.

CLOSE READING | 24 October 2012  

I found this meditation on your mother and her faith very moving. Thank you.

Jena Woodhouse | 26 October 2012  

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