Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Published November 2014, Read February 2017
Rating: ♥♥ (of 5)
“just being a woman
makes me utterly whole
–Milk and Honey, p. 169
I am utterly disappointed by Milk and Honey. I was excited to read a book of poetry that made it to the New York Times‘ Bestsellers List. Being a bestseller is never an indication of how good a book is, but I had seen so many people posting about how profound and moving this thick collection was to them. Not to be cruel, but I think a lot of those people have not read much poetry and what they have read is in Tumblr format.
Milk and Honey is divided into four parts: “the hurting,””the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” Each deals with a different phase in Rupi Kaur’s life starting with her childhood, then a romantic relationship, the end of that relationship, and the process of healing, in that order. While I understand the trajectory, it was poorly executed. The section titled “the hurting” deals with themes of family, childhood, and sexual abuse and includes several good poems, for example: The imagery here is particularly vivid, compared to the rest of the collection. This also actually reads like a poem instead of a random, disjointed thought catalogue. There are one or two other strong poems in “the hurting,” but then the book abruptly transitions to adulthood and the volatility of an adult relationship in “the loving” and “the breaking.” There are no pieces that deal with the transition from a sexually abused child to the fully fledged sexual being portrayed in these two sections. There is one poem that perhaps serves as a transition that deals with masturbation and learning pleasure from one’s own self first, but little else. Such a lack made the collection automatically feel artificial when the flow through “the hurting” was so smooth.
There is nothing good I can say about the middle sections (“the loving” and “the breaking”). They both read like the terrible poetry I wrote as an angst riddled 15 year old. Lots of them reminded me of Tumblr posts that were meant to sound like profound little “isms” about life, but with so many lumped together and passed off as real poems, they felt trite and cliché. Few are longer than a sentence. One poem I found particularly terrible was from page 94: “it must hurt to know / i am your most / beautiful / regret.” I mean, come on! It sounds like a line from a My Chemical Romance song! It’s such an overly dramatic statement that it reveals how very little perspective the author seems to have.
This lack of perspective shows up earlier as well, especially in a poem about alcoholic parents. The poem posits that an alcoholic parent does not truly exist, but is “simply / an alcoholic / who could not stay sober / long enough to raise their kids.” As someone with an intimate knowledge of alcoholism, this simply isn’t true. Alcoholism is a disease that may have a certain element of choice, but is as difficult to manage and fight as any other illness. This poem in particular revealed to me a writer that has done very little work on growing emotionally. The final section, “the healing” is somewhat redeeming. The reader can see some growth in terms of the themes dealt with in parts 2 & 3, but there is no return to the trauma of her childhood.
Rupi Kaur’s pieces on femininity are nice, but are wishy washy compared to the works of other feminist poets. Yes, owning your body is important, and standing in solidarity with other women is vital, both of which Kaur states. She does little, however, to go beyond these ideas: A few poems on body hair, one on not allowing men to disparage other women in order to raise another up, but little else. It’s the sort of mainstreamed feminism that has started to dilute the empowering and radical message of the feminist movement, and for that I find it deeply problematic. Kaur includes two or three poems addressing her identity as a Sikh and a woman of color. These are her strongest poems in the collection, but I have read much more insightful and moving portrayals.
Overall, there are poets and writers doing much more interesting things better than what Rupi Kaur has done in Milk and Honey. Her visuals are ineffectual and uninteresting (see Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for an example of extremely successful juxtaposition of images and text). The collection would be better if she had removed the middle two sections, but even then it would be a watered down text. It is obvious that she had a mass-market editor and not a poetry editor, and the collection was constructed into what would sell best, not what would best respect the art of poetic expression. I was underwhelmed and often frustrated reading this book.
If you are looking for contemporary poetry that is more challenging, complex, and simply better, I highly recommend spending some time on Button Poetry’s social media sites and website.