Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Rupi Kaur is a South Asian Canadian poet and spoken word artist whose first poetry collection milk and honey (2014) sold over 2.5 million copies, graced the New York Times bestseller list for over a year and has been translated into over 30 languages. Her second poetry collection – the sun and her flowers (2017) – continues on the Top Ten lists of fiction, quite unheard of in poetry circles.
Ms. Kaur writes on themes of abuse, love, loss, heartbreak, self-image and the immigrant experience.
Rupi’s life began in Hoshiapur in the Punjab, India. At age four, her family emigrated to Canada moving a lot until settling in Brampton. Her mother gave her a paint brush, encouraging self-expression through art. Today her spare line drawings illustrate her books. Rupi describes herself as a young South Asian woman growing up in the West doing the dance between cultures. This duality is reflected in several of her pieces.
Rupi does not use capitals or punctuation and rarely titles her work. Her themes appear at the bottom of her poem. Some of her pieces are affirmations. Some are brief – “on the last day of love/my heart cracked inside my body”; others lengthy such as broken english – a tribute to her mother and strong, immigrant women everywhere. One wonders if this age of texting and cell phones are responsible for her style or is she trying to be unique like e e cummings?
Rupi states that her poems are meant to be easy for the reader and they are – most accessible. This is a bright light. I find much modern poetry obscure and oblique.
This feminist and millennial writer appeals to young women who identify with her raw personal poems. I can see her appeal to women of color, the downtrodden, new immigrants and women getting over a love affair; but then love and loss are universal themes. When she speaks of love it is dramatic, all-encompassing and out of control.
Rupi began writing to express her fears and feelings, later shared her poems with family then posted on Tumblr and Instagram becoming an almost overnight sensation. We sense the private self in her guttural response and rejoice with her as she taps into self-care, transforming pain into resilience and triumph best illustrated in her long poem – home - which she performs during her TED talk – I’m Taking My Body Back. Five pages. It is essentially a story – prose like with line breaks – that contributes to the immediacy. To start - “it began as a typical thursday from what I recall’ and he becomes physically abusive:
while I hid at the back of some
upstairs closet of my mind as
kicked the front door in
i was a hundred and ten pounds of fresh meat
you skinned and gutted with your fingers (p.69)
Gradually the person works through the pain “and after years of rain/the truth comes like sunlight” and like a phoenix she rises from the ashes to “wash yesterday out of my hair/and enjoy…../this typical thursday afternoon.” (p.72)
Her poems are so visceral one wonders if they stem from her own life experience. The book is divided into five sections that echo her title: wilting, falling, rooting, rising, blooming. It makes sense to read them in order as they build in intensity with the persona in the poems growing from weakness to strength. When it comes to upbringing and abuse, not all are as fortunate as Rupi to develop her resilience.
Some are not at all pleasant -- made me cringe -- yet their rhythm and smooth lyrics appeal. "Lessons from mama" has an edge and poignancy to it as the daughter has a much easier life than her wise and long-suffering mother.
The most graphic poem on the theme of female infanticide angered me not only as a woman but as a human being.
he takes the newborn girl from his wife
carries her to the neighboring room
cradles her head with his left hand
and gently snaps her neck with his right
The next verse 1990, points out the astounding number of girl babies aborted in rural India -- “a hundred baby girls were found buried/behind a doctor’s house in a neighboring village.”
twelve hospitals in the toronto area
refuse to reveal a baby’s gender to expectant families
until the thirtieth week of pregnancy
all twelve hospitals are located in areas with high
asian immigrant populations (p. 144, 145)
Her respect for her mother shines in the simple first line “she left an entire village to be his wife” (p. 150). When she writes of her mother and mothers it is with deep respect and love.
Ms. Kaur who talked very little as a child has found her voice. Perhaps she has tapped into the voice of her culture and women everywhere. Her collection culminates with hope:
to worry about
the sun and her flowers are here.
The sun and her flowers is published by Simon & Schuster.