Reading Rupi Kaur’s second book as an older person than I was three years ago, when I read her first, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of her gift is linked to reading her at the right moment in one’s life. Her words then were about learning to mistrust the wrong kind of men, about relearning that one’s body is one’s own, and about bringing gentle and necessary perspective to how we view relationships and self-worth as young women. In the aftermath of a relationship, I found resonance and clarity in some of her poems.
In this one, titled To Fathers of Daughters, she summarised a reality that is true for many South Asian children who are taught anger is justified as long as it stems from love. In another one titled If You Want to Know What Kind of Man He Is, she warned of men who speak of women behind their back in a malicious way.
Young girls and women commented on Kaur’s Instagram posts, tagging other female friends, with messages such as “we were just talking about this” and “she literally speaks my mind”. They propelled her to unprecedented fame for a poet because she was saying the words they were thinking but more succinctly. It was real talk for an age where sparse text and simple illustrations appealed to those who didn’t want to be talked at, but could listen if the message was short and clear.
Kaur’s illustrations of body hair as flowers growing on a curvy body are a different, less obvious way of combating body hair shaming than similar art by another Instagram sensation, Ayqa Khan. Her embedding of text in the space between a woman’s legs allowed for an uncomfortable conversation to be shared in a non-graphic way. Kaur was uniquely successful for paring down her poems to the bare minimum. The criticisms of laziness and hubris were dulled by the visible impact her work had.
There is a little blushing involved when I recall that some of her poems once held true for me, but that’s almost completely attributable to the shaming of her work as rudimentary or un-intelligent, which is a difficult argument to wage once one looks closely enough at her writing, her readership, and her impact.
Less of everything
Her second book, The Sun And Her Flowers, is a paler offering than her first. The poems feel less inspired, less edited and less realised. The lines that speak female truths, a key draw of Kaur’s poetry, are few and far between. The sparseness has given way to uncontained stream of consciousness. In the latter form, Kaur’s message doesn’t hold up as well. The cracks are evident. The first section is almost entirely without her characteristic engagement with larger social realities.
In one poem, the therapist doesn’t cut it in Kaur’s world. A familiar image of a therapist in a straight-backed chair, and an empty chaise lounge (where a patient can supposedly lie down) accompany the poem. This common image wildly misrepresents the process of therapy. This seems a puzzling choice for Kaur, whose writing is rooted in the pursuit of mental health. She sits herself back down on the couch when she has the urge to leave by reminding herself of the financial cost of the session. This manoeuvre is one more dismissal of a step which is key to the recovery of mental health in many young people.
The narrative is devised as five sections that chart the course of a flower’s life as “wilting”, “falling”, “rooting”, “rising” and “blooming”. The third section, “rooting”, is centred on Kaur’s mother, who is an immigrant, a refugee and a homesick parent. This section is the first one where an obvious progression in Kaur’s themes is visible. The centring of her mother grounds the poems with their specific, unmistakeable details. With this grounding there emerge boundaries between the different pieces – in the first two parts, the poems tended to blur into each other.
This is followed by “rising”, which explores a new, gentle relationship. One of Kaur’s strengths is her words and her illustrations speak directly of the body and its traumas and desires. Whether it is a drawing of feet arched in orgasm or of a woman pleasuring herself, Kaur is creating erotic literature in which young women can see themselves. The section closes with one of Kaur’s most popular poems which says in the end, “if we can’t learn to be kind to each other, how will/ we learn to be kind to the most desperate/ part of ourselves.”
The final section, “blooming”, varies widely in the themes it tackles. The idea of freedom, as one handed down to her by her father, by herself and by other women, ties together the last stretch of her journey. There’s a firmness to the statements where heartache and exuberance used to be. There’s a sense of having learned and being able to share lessons with other women in these poems. In Pace Yourself, she writes:
“the road to changing the world
is never ending”
In Medicine, she writes:
“we need more love
not from men
but from ourselves
and each other”
There are places where one wishes an editor had culled away the rambling and the repetition. There are moments where one can’t help but ask if we haven’t heard Kaur or someone else say that before. But all in all, it is a book that’s accessible to anyone. It can even be moving if you’re receptive to wisdom small enough to fit inside a fortune cookie. Kaur has surmounted extreme fame and consistent criticism to deliver a second, slightly flawed book. In the third, one can only hope she will soothe and surprise in equal measure.
The Sun And Her Flowers, Rupi Kaur, Simon & Schuster.