A path to healing: experience expressed, explored, and exonerated through art and poetry
‘Smooth as milk, thick as honey‘, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur’s collection milk and honey is experience expressed, explored, and exonerated through art and poetry. As the titles of the four parts imply, it takes the reader through what it feels to ‘hurt’, ‘love’, ‘break’, and eventually, ‘heal’, and though the titles suggest this is a collection of recollections about love, it seems it’s more a reflection on life and relationships of all sorts – fathers, daughters, lovers, mothers, writers, and you, the reader.
Its status as an originally self-published work, a decision made out of a desire for complete creative control, shines through in its unorthodox style: a melting pot of free form poetry, prose and a post-relationship to-do list (p.142) that features some pretty sound advice all mixed in with simple but striking sketches. Even Kaur’s poetic style and typeset – only using lowercase letters and full stops – is stylistically unusual, but encapsulates the larger themes at play throughout the poems. As featured in an FAQ, the use of only lowercase letters and full stops is in part an homage to her heritage and personal history, as in the Gurmukhi script of her mother-tongue, Punjabi, ‘all letters are treated the same’ and ‘periods [are] the only punctuation’, but the appearance on the page is a representation of her personal politics, ‘what [she] want[s] to see more of [in] the world’: equality.
Trickling through everything from the typeset to the topic is a balance between the individual and the universal. The poetic voice varies between the parable-like second person and the deeply personal first, exploring depictions of violence that not only threaten women socially, with their bodies ‘a war / the border between two countries / the collateral damage’ (p.32), and sexually, as ‘an open wound’ (p.38), but also spiritually, as a father ‘shoves the word hush / between her [mother’s] lips and tells her to / never speak with her mouth full’ (p.35).
Kaur lets these shared experiences shape her own sequence: the speaker’s experiences, or those she speaks of, shift from compliance – ‘you were so afraid / of my voice / i decided to be / afraid of it too’ (p.17) – to complete defiance – ‘don’t come here with expectations / as try to make a vacation out of me’ (p.97). The titles echo this, moving from ‘hurting’ to ‘healing’, although, like milk and honey, the the narrative is free-flowing rather than formed, matched by the enjambed-style of the stanzas throughout the four-part structure.
This path to healing, from the pained to the unapologetic to the empowered, is poignantly captured in the closing chapter in pictures of women with flowers blossoming from their bodies (p.147, p.153, p.165, p.193). The speaker has learned to ‘stay strong through your pain / grow flowers from it / you have helped me / grow flowers out of mine so / bloom beautifully / dangerously / loudly / bloom softly / however you need / just bloom’ (p.158), and it’s a lesson addressed directly ‘to the reader’.
And that’s what milk and honey means: as the ‘tongue is sour / from the hunger / of missing you’ (p.116), the sweetness of milk and honey is satisfaction. But, despite the passion and sensuality in the poems, the suggestion is that it’s not sexual satisfaction, but self satisfaction: ‘i need to be successful to gain / enough milk and honey / to help those around / me succeed’ (p.199).