it is easy to look down on rupi kaur’s poetry. too young. too tumblr. too i’m-in-love-for-the-first-time-and-no-one-has-ever-felt-this-way-before.
kaur’s anti-establishment style- self-published, with a lack of capital letters and a disdain for punctuation- is synonymous with many of today’s instapoets. yet it is kaur’s work that has leapt into the mainstream and topped the new york times bestseller list. twice. so there must be something special about her writing.
and there is. kaur’s first collection, milk and honey, is one of the few books on my “if you don’t give this back i won’t just be angry, i’ll be disappointed” bookshelf. from the lyrical poems down to the matte cover, milk and honey feels a little bit like a carefully selected gift.
this second collection, the sun and her flowers, has been too hastily wrapped.
the canadian 25 year old still manages to make many of her turns of phrase bloom. her words still depict bodies, inside and out, as susceptible to emotions as if pain or lust were physical elements. skin is floral, easily ripped or torn. the mind is shaken in a storm, sometimes a weed and sometimes a healthy root. there are still so many moments of beauty, of rawness, of vulnerability. the words seem to flow out of her. she makes it look so easy.
but that’s where kaur stumbles. this second collection is too easy. it has neither the grace nor the thorniness of milk and honey.
much like her first collection, the sun and her flowers is divided into sections, here taking the shape of a flower’s life: wilting, falling, rooting, rising, blooming. kaur explored most of the themes in similar ways throughout milk and honey, and many of the new poems could be interchanged with the first collection. love, sexual assault, family, femininity, strength. all worthy, but many here dealt with too heavy-handedly. frequently, kaur leans so heavily on cliche that she topples into it.
in part, the fault here lies with the visual layout. the illustrations, which are no doubt beautiful, feel so lazy. in the first, some poems hid inside illustrations, the pen curving round the printed word. there, the drawings embellished the meaning of the poems, extending metaphors or adding a nudge of understanding. in the sun and her flowers, the illustrations directly repeat the image of the poem. a poem about a unibrow will be underscored by a subtitle that says “unibrow”, above a drawing of a unibrow. we get it. many of her illustrations in the sun and her flowers are also an “ode to”, rather than holding a unique voice.
all of this feels like watching a bad actor, when the pace at which they walk dictates the rhythm of their speech. i want her to run while she sings us a lullaby. her first collection proves she can. this second lets her down.
one of the most significant steps away from her first collection is the section rooting. many of these poems draw both on the world’s compassion fatigue at refugees flooding the news, and her own ancestry. she writes about female infanticide, about racism today and about her mother with a delicacy that necessitates the blank space around her words, in order to let them settle on your lips.
and then she leaps. back to the rom-com tropes. it feels naive, no worse than that, it feels immature to combine the overbearing hunger of a refugee and then the wholeness of her being in love. her writing doesn’t yet have the strength for them to all coherently fit together. the vastness of the topics she tries to cover swallows up their logical connection.
this week has proven that women need a support network and a space to speak out about injustice. and rupi kaur has opened up poetry to so many young women, being brave enough to talk about tough topics. so she deserves more space, more room to breathe, more platforms to speak upon. her work is tangible, and bold. yes, it’s cliched, and yes, the lack of full stops sometimes feels more effortful than just giving into autocorrected capitalisation, but my copy of the book is still dog-eared and underlined. there is something about the cliches that are unavoidably attractive. i just can’t shake the feeling that for everything kaur tries to tackle in this collection, the result disappoints.