“my heart woke me crying last night
how can i help i begged
my heart said
write the book.”
This is a quotation from the flyleaf of Canadian poet and artist Rupi Kaur’s collection, milk and honey. Kaur’s writing is raw, stripped bare, sounding as if her heart is beating out the rhythm of each word, in language so simple but so poignant it hurts to read.
I sat with the 204-page book, divided into four chapters: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing,” and read each poem without interruption. It was like taking a slow-moving train through everywomen’s love life. Somewhere in these pages all of us will find our story.
That’s one reason milk and honey sits near the top of North American bestseller lists. No matter your age, race, or history, if you are a female, at some time in your life you have experienced the pain of a love- familial or romantic- that has left you feeling unworthy, unattractive, despairing.
Kaur doesn’t back away. The poems lie on the page, bare and open, like vulnerable newborns.
sex takes the consent of two
if one person is lying there not doing anything
cause they are not ready
or not in the mood,
or simply don’t want to
yet the other is having sex
with their body it’s not love
it is rape
you have sadness
living in places
sadness shouldn’t live
These words from “the hurting” chapter, are tough to read, but just when you think it’s too much, you’ve had enough, Kaur’s words pick you up and take you to “the loving.”
you look like you smell of
honey and no pain
let me have a taste of that
And so, with three lines and seventeen words, you are seduced into reading more.
I cried over the words in the third chapter, “ the breaking,” and then immersed myself in “the healing.”
This book reminded me of a hard-scrabble river that begins in a rocky, arid place, widens out into clear, fast-moving waters, becomes a treacherous waterfall, then finds its’ rhythm and flow. It is a book of hope.
Remarkably, Rupi Kaur was just 21 when she wrote and self-published milk and honey in 2014. It became a word-of-mouth bestseller and was reissued by an American publisher in October 2015. A year and a half later it is one of the few books of poetry to top the bestseller lists.
On her website, Kaur explains that she self-published after receiving numerous rejection notices for individual poems that she submitted to literary magazines. She realized that her work “was a whole body” and needed to be published as such. I agree. The strength of milk and honey comes from its’ completeness. Like life, there is pain, joy, beauty, ugliness, anger and forgiveness, lining the pages.
Kaur’s other reason for self-publishing was her desire for creative control. She is an illustrator and designer as well as a writer and her black and white line drawings, scattered throughout the book, add to its’ power.
She also chose to use only lower case type, to emphasize the simplicity and straightforwardness of her words.
This is not an autobiographical book. The theme of trauma and abuse that runs through the chapters is as Kaur says, indicative of “generations of pain embedded into our souls.” The souls of her South Asian ancestors and the souls of all women. Poetry serving as a tool to “challenge the historical narrative.”
I love the heft of this book. Not its’ literal size because many of the 204 pages hold only two or four or six line poems, but the arc of the narrative that encompasses the whole gamut of feelings that surround love and desire and hurt and healing.
As writers, sometimes we stop too soon. We begin to dive into the truth of a situation but when it gets messy or painful and we feel vulnerable, we pull back. We let fear limit what we put down on the page. But when we do that, we miss the opportunity to connect fully with another human being, with our reader.
The magic in milk and honey lies with Rupi Kaur’s willingness to open herself up to us. At the end of the book, there is a “love letter from me to you,” in which Kaur says:
you have made it to the end, with my heart in your
hands…thank you…for being
tender with the most delicate part of me…
i would be nowhere
and nothing if it were not for you…you’ve helped me
become the woman i wanted to be…but was too afraid
Not only has she bared her soul to us, she is thanking us as well. The intimacy of the poems extends outwards and embraces us as her readers. It is remarkably moving and does not feel anything but true.
Stacey May Fowles in the Globe & Mail, calls it the most therapeutic book she read in 2016.
This is a book worth picking up, even if poetry is not what you want to write or what you usually read. There is a lesson here for prose and poetry writers, in the use of plain language to tell our truth fearlessly.
Til next time, keep writing.