Pisanki, Zosia Kuczyńska
The Emma Press, 2017 £6.50
This inspiring pamphlet opens with ‘The train from Arkhangelsk to Bukhara’: a train hurtles through a landscape; the poet's grandmother is a child onboard. It's 1942, and the Polish refugees are on their way to India (and eventually England), and looting the train’s cargo for food – flour – not guns. When they find guns they throw them out of the moving train into the fields:
You wake to find your field is sown with metal,
as though an artist had labelled it in the night
with the knowing title, Midas died of hunger.
If it’s not too tenuous, that's what I think this poet also achieves in the writing: to take the story of that long journey, and throw the guns out in favour of the flour. We get more choice in writing than in life about what to put in and what to leave out. This selectivity is not about distorting reality – it's about heightening it. About having a choice, choices – and making them. Here, I’d argue, overall, the poet chooses sustenance. Of all sorts. As her family before her had to:
Their children rattle inside their skins like guns
in looted crates, and anything they steal
that can’t be swallowed is given to the view.
And so they make their odyssey – the work doesn't shy from awfulness and losses – but the bigger picture is of people living well in transit, and then building a new life from the ground up:
I think there must be more to do than be
a scarecrow in the world – that is to say
to bury my brain in the road of a homesick girl.
Poems like ‘Sarah Jane’s Geranium’ – where ‘eventually, / the roots of something portable will bind / themselves’ and ‘demand a living-space as big outside / as it is in, and far less travel-sized’ – and the lovely sonnet, ‘Rochdale Nativity’, – ‘Across the stream that fathers cannot ford, / you send delighted ripples of applause’ – seem to me to celebrate the rich fruits of these hard-made choices.