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Pisanki: A Review

“Only to scratch the surface has its own integrity; besides, a pattern is easier to understand than eggshells.”

Zosia Kuczyńska’s debut chapbook Pisanki marries history and art with an invocation not to sanitise or systemise suffering, for

all things that are capable of making patterns are also capable of cruelty

Based on her grandmother’s harrowing childhood experiences of World War Two, ‘The train from Arkhangelsk to Bukhara’ is a complex and haunting introductory poem:

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

Kuczyńska’s poetic landscape is constructed and deconstructed with guns thrown from a moving train by deportees whose “children rattle inside their skins like guns/ in looted crates”. The use of a second person narrative here adds a directness and urgency to the poem, imploring the reader to understand that nobody wins in war: that we are the farmers; that those who escape persecution are not free of its consequences.

Kuczyńska’s skill as a storyteller lies in the rich simplicity of her narrative.

When you cross the Caspian Sea to Pahlavi and Tehran, your sister and brother do not succumb to typhoid.

At first glance, the lines recall the voice of an unquestioning child. But scratch the surface and the scourge of typhoid fever is readily revealed. Scratch again and understand that Kuczyńska’s grandmother contracted the illness. Finally, and with great feeling, “your sister and brother/ do not succumb” holds within it the comforting echo of a parental rebuke, from parents now dead and buried, their graves

as indistinct from other parents’ graves as telegraph poles from telegraph poles or breadcrumbs from breadcrumbs.

Kuczyńska could have undoubtedly filled an entire collection with stories such as these, yet within the space of three poems the reader is abruptly informed “Enough of that: it’s over now.” This chapbook is not a eulogy for a lost childhood: the past may inform the present, but it does  not dictate it.

This stalwart attitude is reflected in the precise, restrained form Kuczyńska’s adopts for ‘Rochdale Nativity’, wherein we witness the ordinary miracles of a safe childhood. Kuczyńska’s does not weigh down the poem with obvious comparisons, and leaves readers’ eyes to turn “To these your daughters, who are jumping pearls,/ each crowned alike in bliss and Bacofoil.” It is the unassuming depiction of her grandmother that is so important here. Not refugee, immigrant, survivor, or any other term that, either by accident or design, strips the humanity away from  those forced to flee their homeland. She is just a mother, watching her daughters in a play, her past tucked away like a tissue in her purse.

While arriving in England is undoubtedly a life-altering event for her grandmother, Kuczyńska’s chapbook makes no attempt to anglicise its narrative. There is no gratitude here, no erasure of self: both current and insidious expectations of a misplaced national entitlement. These poems are the patterns on the shells: we may enjoy them without expecting, or presuming, to understand the depth of experience beneath the surface. What makes this chapbook so satisfying is that it is not a book of egos. Both the reader and the poet are members of the same audience, listening to the same stories without the impetus or invitation to pour ourselves, or our unspecified guilts or outrages, onto the pages. Humility is a welcome perquisite here, when all too often we witness emotional responses that overwhelm, or simply ignore, the voices of  those who experience tragedy and hardship firsthand. ‘Medico della Peste’, the chapbook’s penultimate poem, adroitly uses our carnivalesque past to expose our absurd present:

The plague doctor is a symptom thought of as a harbinger

and masks himself against the symptoms rather than the cause

With governing bodies who scarcely get by in peace-time, and lack the wherewithal and acumen to cope in times of real social upheaval, Kuczyńska reminds us to look beyond the trappings of prestige and worldliness that politicians are so quick to defend themselves with:

The plague doctor is nothing but a counter of a bodies

and could be anyone behind his shield of lavender.

‘On Hoisery’ then challenges outright the comfortable narratives we weave from tragedy. Citing the retrospective glamour of war-time ingenuity, Kuczyńska lays before us the ugliness that so often predicates beauty.  In the reduction of “fierce tradition” to trinket “in tour-guides’ hands in Chinese factories” we see the fetishized journeys of refugees, stripped of cause and consequence, heralded as a feat of human determination, not act of abject desperation. In the face of such overwhelming circumstances, Kuczyńska’s message is a significant one:

Survive to hope… that every damage done as though by moths can be told as art or history or both.


Pisanki is a chapbook of balanced beauty, one that neither masks nor celebrates hardship. It speaks to our need to find serenity in terror, life in death, hope in fear; our need for an order, a pattern, a belief that there is a purpose that can be found.  Full of strong narratives woven into patterns both complex and recognisable, this is an authentic and earthy collection with something important to say.


Pisanki by Zosia Kuczyńska, Emma Press. 36pp; £6.50. ISBN 978-1-910139-72-1


If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form below in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.

  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.

  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

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