Obituary: Zofia Ilinska

Philip Marsden
Friday 03 November 1995 01:02 GMT

On the evening Zofia Ilinska was born, in what was then the Polish city of Wilno, her father went to church and prayed with such intensity that he was locked in all night. Her life after that was never short of drama. She witnessed a string of episodes which might have made a lesser spirit cautious or bitter, but in her case served only to sharpen her courage, her innate sense of adventure, and the resolve to celebrate the world through her poetry.

On her mother's side, Ilinska was descended from O'Rourkes who had fled Ireland in the 17th century. One branch ended up near Nowogrodek in the west of Russia and it was into this region, one of those perpetually fought- over, ethnically ambiguous pockets of eastern Europe, that Zofia Brochocka was born.

Her early years were austere. The family house had been burnt down during the Polish-Soviet war and the land around it was devoid of horses, cattle, grain, almost any food at all; Zofia's mother fed her on goat's milk while her father, Aleksander Brochocki, started to rebuild the house. They lived simply; there was never electricity, and furniture was built largely from the birch forests that surrounded the estate.

She was 17 when, in September 1939, Soviet tanks rolled into eastern Poland. With hours to spare, she, her mother (her father had died in 1934), and her two brothers escaped on farm carts. For three days they manoeuvred through the forest, keeping just ahead of the advance, and crossed the Lithuanian border with bullets splintering the side of the carts.

Arriving in Britain, Zofia began to improve her English. Within a few years she had earned a degree in English literature from Reading University. She was already writing verse, but on her 21st birthday remembered throwing herself on her bed, driven to tears by the thought that Byron was already an established poet by her age. Despite this, she managed during the war to publish, in Polish, two volumes of poetry.

In 1943, while working at the Polish section of the BBC, she married Olgierd Ilinski, a pilot. Within three weeks of the wedding, his plane had been shot down over France. At 23, Zofia Ilinska was a widow. Two years later, she married Harley Moseley, an American diplomat, and they spent their honeymoon in St Mawes, on the south coast of Cornwall. So taken were they by the village that Moseley bought its two hotels. For the next 30 years, they lived as hotel-keepers.

Ilinska grew to love her adopted home. She was happy to have found in Cornwall a landscape which acted upon her in the way that the forest and the river Niemen had done in Poland. She was unsparing in the time she gave to others, to her family, to the hundreds of people who passed through St Mawes. All who came across her felt drawn in by a rare and rewarding quality of warmth.

Perhaps it was thus to her life that she gave the greater part of her art, and not to her poetry. Yet she always wrote; she wrote - in English now - about those who came to her hotels; she wrote about Cornwall; she wrote about her son who was 22 when he was killed in a car accident; she wrote a poem called "Aikichi Kuboyama" (translated into three languages) about a Japanese fisherman, the first victim of the hydrogen bomb:

In water-lapping dactyls water


Against the heart, against the tar-

stained bow.

Aikichi Kuboyama died of ashes.

She wrote about her own cancer, and she translated T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral into Polish. Her work was the writing of a genuine poet; she had a meticulous regard for technique and an unusually lyrical sense of the language, astonishing in someone for whom English was not her native tongue.

Contented though she was in exile, Ilinska remained essentially Polish and always curious about her old home. After Yalta, the land around the Niemen had become part of the Soviet Union and all her attempts to visit it, even to receive news, had failed. But in 1992, after 53 years, she returned to the newly independent republic of Belarus. It was a harrowing journey but one that she treated with her usual open- mindedness; it was, to her, more important to answer the questions than to avoid the pain the answers would bring. She found her house destroyed, burnt down again in 1941. She failed to locate the hoard of silver which she had buried in the forest, but she did meet a number of people who remembered her. She also found her father's grave looted and the family chapel collapsed.

On her return to Cornwall, she started to raise money to restore the chapel, and in summer 1994 went back to Belarus for its re-opening. In her speech she explained to the villagers that the chapel was dedicated to the memory of her father, but that, as a place of worship, it was for them; she told them that her family would never return, that the world she had known there had gone forever. In restoring the chapel, she believed that she had somehow fulfilled herself; that she had, in her own words, "closed the circle".

Philip Marsden

Zofia Aleksandra Brochocka, poet: born Wilno, Poland 29 October 1921; books include The Idle Rocks 1972, Horoscope of the Moon 1992; married 1943 Olgierd Ilinksi (died 1943), 1945 Harley Moseley (died 1982; one daughter, and one son deceased); died St Austell, Cornwall 30 October 1995.

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