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Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
reviewed by Jessica Milliken

Milk and Honey
Rupi Kaur
Andrews McMeel Publishing


Rupi Kaur holds nothing back in her debut collection of poetry, Milk and Honey. Secrets spill out of the pages; I almost want to keep the book shut in case one slips out. Like many young writers, Kaur had been told there was no market for her poetry and she was better off submitting a piece or two to anthologies and literary magazines. We can thank the universe she didn’t listen. At 21, the Toronto-based writer and artist self-published this collection using Amazon’s Createspace. Despite there being no market for a young-Canadian-woman-of-colour’s poetry, the book began topping North American best-seller lists. The power of social media platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, allowed Kaur’s collection to reach across countries and readers of all backgrounds. Readers wanted her work. Her secrets matched ours.Within five months of its self-publication, McMeel Publishing from the U.S. contacted Kaur and wanted to re-release the book under their imprint. It’s now a New York Times Bestseller.

Milk and Honey is broken into four sections; the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing. Each section deals with a different type of pain but her themes of femininity, abuse, love, sex, lust, and loss are fluent throughout the book. Filling in white spaces are her own line drawings that complement and illustrate the poetry. These include outlines of bodies and body parts, a woman’s face with a hand over top of her mouth, a bottle of alcohol spilling on a floor, a snakeskin, a sunset, a pair of lightbulbs, and many other sketches. They add weight to the poetry and make it visually appealing, unique to Kaur.

Everything in Milk and Honey is written as poetry: the back cover, the dedication, the thank-you to the reader, even the about-the-writer reads as poetry. Everything is important and everything is treated with the same respect. The book, and even her website, use only lowercase letters. Kaur explains:

although i can read and understand my mother tongue (punjabi) i do not have the skillset to write poetry in it. to write punjabi means to use gurmukhi script. and within this script there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. all letters are treated the same. i enjoy how simple that is. how symmetrical and how absolutely straightforward. i also feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. a visual representation of what i want to see more of within the world: equalness.

How exquisite that everything is treated the same, especially when placed inside poetry where feelings, emotions, characters and the speaker are not.

Within the theme of abuse are epigrams such as “the rape will / tear you / in half, / but it / will not / end you” and “you have sadness / living in places / sadness shouldn’t live”. With their shortness and directness, these pieces speak directly to any survivor of assault both as an understanding and as a statement of hope—“it will not end you.” Kaur also writers of a strained father-daughter relationship that the narrator compares to the “collateral damage” of her alcoholic parents’ marriage. This relationship continues in pieces where Kaur writes how alcoholic parents don’t exist, they simply “… could not stay sober / long enough to raise their kids”. Kaur shies away from nothing, sharing these secrets and others and almost inviting the reader into a therapy session.

For love, she talks of the good and the bad. She speaks directly to a heartbroken reader like a best friend, saying exactly what they need to hear, giving them the strength to continue after love has ended.

When you are broken
and he has left you
do not question
whether you were
the problem was
you were so enough
he was not able to carry it

In the final section of the book, the healing, Kaur leaves advice and courage for readers in epigrams like “accept yourself / as you were designed.” She is a writer that embraces herself, “flaws” and all and encourages her readers to do the same. Kaur and her words are support for readers, as evident in this poem:

you look at me and cry
everything hurts
i look at you and whisper
but everything can heal

Kaur was able to begin healing herself through the process of this book, as she writes in the introduction, “my heart woke me crying last night / how can i help i begged / my heart said / write the book.” But this book can also help other women heal.

This book hurts to read, yet it’s pain you want to feel. Or maybe, it’s pain you need to feel—exquisite pain, drenched in honesty, bravery. “the abused / and the / abuser” she says; “ i have been both.” I want to slip this book into the purse of the girl at work who thinks she needs to hide in the office because she didn’t have time to put make-up on today and now is no longer pretty. I want to throw it at a best friend who had a boy take so much from her she thought she was empty. I want Rupi Kaur to come and read this book out loud to all the women I love, the men too.

But what if no one else shivers when they read “he only whispers i love you/ as he slips his hands / down the waistband / of your pants.” What if no one else’s heart falters when she tells them “people go / but how / they left / always stay.” What if no one else wants to stand on the top of the world with a megaphone and scream “i am a museum full of art / but you had your eyes shut.’” I want to keep it for myself. I want to hide this book on my shelf and let the dust find it. I want to keep this secret, keep her words for me. I wonder if there’s a way to do both.

Jessica Milliken writes from B.C.’s Fraser Valley where studies English, Creative Writing and Theatre. She and is working on a first, major poetry manuscript.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.