‘I Can’t Tell If It’s Healing Or Destroying Me’: Rupi Kaur’s Feminist Poetry

by Erika W. Smith

“the thing about writing is / i can’t tell if it’s healing / or destroying me,” Rupi Kaur writes in her debut book of poetry, Milk and Honey. It’s a complete poem in its own – one of many micro-poems in the book, shorter than tweets but packed with power.

“the rape will / tear you /  in half / but it / will not / end you”

“i am undoing you / from my skin”

“the way they / leave / tells you / everything”

Kaur, who lives in Toronto and is also a photographer, has a dedicated social media following – how many other poets can say they have fanblogs about them? The press release for Milk and Honey describes her as a “Tumblr sensation.” Kaur has over 283,000 followers on Instagram, where she shares her poems, one by one, each earning tens of thousands of likes. There’s even a BuzzFeed list about her, “18 Reasons Why Every Woman Should Follow Poet Rupi Kaur On Instagram.” It makes sense: the back cover of Milk and Honey calls the collection “the blood sweat tears / of twenty-one years,” and it’s easy to imagine a fanbase of teenage and twentysomething girls who have devoured all of Sylvia Plath and still want more.

I mean that as praise, and as explanation: so much of Kaur’s writing feels familiar, but in a new way. Many of Kaur’s poems recall slogans and sayings, twisting them just enough so that you see them in a new way. Like “other women’s bodies / are not our battlegrounds,” a complete poem on its own, or a longer twist on that often-ridiculed phrase, “not like other girls.”

She makes me think of that familiar slogan, “The personal is political,” as she writes about rape and recovery, falling in love and recovering from heartbreak, and growing comfortable in her own skins. Her poems are at once intensely personal and staggeringly universal, and she often writes as a “we” or an “our”: “our knees / pried open / by cousins / and uncles / and men / our bodies touched / by all the wrong people / that even in a bed full of safety / we are afraid.”

Others of Kaur’s poems are almost empowerment slogans – “you must / want to spend / the rest of your life / with yourself / first” – while others are tough-love girl talk – “don’t mistake / salt for sugar / if he wants to / be with you / he will / it’s that simple.”

In a poem titled “women of colour,” Kaur writes, “our backs / tell stories / no books have / the spine to carry.”

Milk and Honey may have proved that wrong.

Images: Facebook/Rupi Kaur, Instagram/Rupi Kaur

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