A woman who longs to buy an antique strand of amber beads imagines the woman who once wore them.


Coveted week after week on the market stall,

coiled, nonchalant, arrayed under the lid
of locked glass, they grew familiar.
She’d finger them, drop them over her head,
try them for size, spoilt for choice –
red-amber, yellow, cut Russian ruby,
or those sad rosaries, widow’s beads of Whitby jet.
In each bead surfaced the cloudy face of a woman.

Warmed by the sunlight on dressing tables,
or against a woman’s skin, then laid safe
in a drawer each night between the silk leaves
of her underwear. Never cold, as if
each bead were an unquenchable flame
that burned a million years like a sanctuary lamp
beneath the ice, each drop of sticky gold
hardening to honeyed stone.

As if nothing that has ever contained heat
can be cold again, mirrors never empty
and our rooms, furniture, hoarded amulets,
could reassemble themselves into a life
and still pass hand to hand from underneath
the permafrost, ice woman to living daughter.

from Five Fields (Carcanet, 1998), © Gillian Clarke, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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