Peace Is What Our Hearts Seek: Kalpna Singh-Chitnis’s Love Letters to Ukraine

September 20, 2023

A photograph of Kalpa Singh Chitnis with the cover to her book Love Letters to Ukraine from UyavaIn Love Letters to Ukraine from Uyava (River Paw Press, 2023), Kalpna Singh-Chitnis writes an urgent tribute for Ukraine, the same urgency she employed when putting together her Ukraine anthology Sunflowers: Ukrainian Poetry on War, Resistance, Hope and Peace. In Love Letters, Singh-Chitnis compiles a series of echo refrain poems for an embattled nation. Her own sympathy is not sentimental so much as pragmatic and hopeful. Hers is not a patronizing tone but a welcoming one: meditate on these things, help others, be more. It is both an antithesis to the me, me, me modern culture and a meditation on what matters most. In “War: A One Way Street,” she observes: “There is no glory in a war. / Every home has a shrine. / A war cannot be defined. / It can only be lived or imagined.”

Later, in the poem “Nothing Is Permanent,” the poet considers mortality, how we cease and yet continue, and what part humanity plays in the creation and endurance of the world. These philosophical considerations are presented without pretense and evoke a desire to think beyond the moment, hence the necessity and value of poetry in times of war—a long-established tradition, because who better to speak on war but the poet? To voice metaphorically the machinations of this war, she writes:

Let’s not cast doubts about
why I am here. Who am I?
I am here at your invitation.
We are in this hell together!
Searching for our paradise lost. (“Paradise Lost”)

The poet considers mortality, how we cease and yet continue, and what part humanity plays in the creation and endurance of the world.

This could be interpreted as a self-fulfilling need to insert oneself into another’s suffering, but the purpose is quite the opposite. When a poet engages with a cause and feels for its people, then the necessity of comparison is not narcissistic but a way of challenging us to consider beyond ourselves. Often the best way of achieving this is by demonstration of similarity. We know joy from experience and from the contrast with grief. It’s humility at its purest when we seek to witness others’ pain by recalling our own struggles. In this, we reach out to suffering with words,

Like a princess of an era gone by, I write songs,
like long shadows cast on the dunes by the evening sun,
and ask the winds to deliver my messages to you
on your battlefields. (“Saffron Love”)

So often we consider war “other” countries’ problems, without seeing the universality of war and its ultimate destruction of us all. Is it trite for a nonsoldier living in California to write of Ukraine? Or is this the reflective skill of poetry, whereby differences become mirrors, and similarities, reflections upon water? Where we grow through the intentionality of the author to proffer truths to which all of us can relate. When one has the willingness and sacrifice to ask disparate others, What can I do to help? And part of that need is to illustrate the irrationality and curse of war while remaining hopeful for its cessation. In the poem “Soledar,” Singh-Chitnis breathes hope into the wreckage of war by her simple reminder: when we are physically torn down, our roots remain, and as long as those fundamentals stand, we are not lost:

There may not be any walls left standing in your city,
but you have your foundations, the fundamentals,
the grounds you stand on in your offensive.

In “A Year of the War,” Singh-Chitnis describes what we can immediately recognize, the trauma of losing what we took for granted and being in an incomplete state of fragmentation, writing: “It has been a year of the war. / We have lost the concept of time. / We have adjusted our body clock / and turned around the seasons in our minds / to live—not merely survive.” The tension of words, their relentless pace, and the specificity of language make this a poem of compassion, understanding, and unity. We take from these words a reminder that we endure, we can be more than merely surviving.

With that reminder of our capacity to rebuild, one of my favorite poems, “War and Flowers,” evokes this palpably:

They did not go to the temples, churches and synagogues,
or offer themselves to God and Godmen.
They went to honor the coffins of the soldiers
and unmarked graves of the braves and innocents.

In the final line of the poem (”everyone takes a new role in a war”), Singh-Chitnis invites us to consider that without outrage, war might continue to be glamorized or seen as a necessary part of the human condition, which is really the greatest lie of all. Yet with its enduring reality, one must understand the roles in war, and the anguish of those roles, so often smothered by spectacle, becomes its real legacy. “The last time I heard an air raid siren, I was five,” she writes. “Eating dinner in my courtyard, I had to leave my plate / for the moon. The lights went off” (“War at Five”).

The poet’s evocation of such terrors speaks to greater universal terrors, our collective grief and horror, as well as the simple juxtaposition of the physical versus spiritual. If we know one thing it is that war vanquishes peace, and peace is what our hearts seek. Why do wars keep happening, then? If we do not keep asking that question, perhaps they’ll continue as tapestries in the legacy of humanity and not something to seek an end to.

On another level, this collection is a broken heart, the testimony between two war-torn lovers, the nimble language of loss and reconciliation and pain. The author doesn’t subscribe to the materialism of the world so much as its beautiful potential heart. Empathy and deeper understanding aren’t learned in a school room; they are absorbed and shared through raw truth:

“We are sick of telling the world,
how to spell our names correctly!”
“Vladimir is Russian, and Volodymyr is Ukrainian,
Do you get it?” (“Misspelling”)

Singh-Chitnis’s universalism is the core of her ability to reach others, and such writing lends us the language and determination to believe individuals can have a hand in change. This is, surely, the heart of poetry and why poets such as Singh-Chitnis are necessary, in wartime and in peace.

Candice Louisa Daquin is of Sephardi French/Egyptian descent. Born in Europe, Daquin was publishing director at the US embassy before immigrating to America to practice psychotherapy. Daquin has worked at rape crisis centers in three countries and regularly wrote for poetry periodicals Rattle and Northern Poetry Review. She is senior editor at Indie Blu(e) publishing, editorial partner with Raw Earth Ink, writer-in-residence for Borderless Journal, and editor of poetry for Pine Cone Review and Parcham Literary Magazine.