When I started reading this book, I didn’t like Rupi Kaur any more than you do. I think anyone who’s reading this site probably has the same idea of her that I had, an idea that isn’t entirely inaccurate: that Rupi Kaur is a sham writer of trite, pithy poems that aren’t worth the mostly-blank paper they’re printed on. As I sat downloading a copy of her latest book, The Sun And Her Flowers, probably chuckling with self-satisfied irony, I had very low expectations, likely no greater than yours. I had no great awakening while reading this book – none of my troubles were danced away in a field of sunflowers – but this new Rupi Kaur book… it has good parts.
The Sun And Her Flowers is split into five chapters: ‘wilting’, ‘falling’, ‘rooting’, ‘rising’, and ‘blooming’, which are loose collections of vaguely discrete poems. Occasionally a small, hardly noticeable heading will appear, some short phrase marked with a hyphen, but it was only halfway through the book that I figured these may be the titles of poems and not just declarations of relevant ideas. Read in sequence, separations between poems are essentially nonexistent and they typically flow into each other uninterrupted. The poems in each chapter generally convey some sort of narrative, and when they don’t, at least a theme. Sometimes they convey neither, and their purpose is unclear.
The highlight of this book, the part that most reassures me that Rupi Kaur is a truly talented poet, is a disturbing, jarring, and hair-raising description of a sexual assault in the third chapter, ‘rooting’, a chapter mostly concerned with body positivity. Images are used to great effect here – the attacker turns the speaker’s breasts into “bruised fruit”, the speaker is “fresh meat”, “skinned and gutted” by the attacker’s fingers, like he is “scraping the inside of a cantaloupe clean”, and when she finally gets home, the sweat, bite marks, and “white between her legs” are not hers. Kaur’s flights of imagery are her strength – often she wrings weight from straightforward action, sometimes even mental action, by constructing elaborate allegorical scenes. She climbs her hair and enters her mind, sweeping dust and expunging old, useless pain.
Sadly, the remainder of the book seldom approaches the heights it reaches in ‘rooting’, and the reasons for her reputation among her detractors become apparent. It isn’t unfair to say that in this book, Kaur’s tendency truly is toward trite, pithy poems, bookended by flashes of poignancy. Her poems exist in a Candyland, where there are no troubles that meticulously-concocted bathwater can’t wash away, and no challenge so profound that it can’t be conquered by putting flowers in your hair or listening to birdsong – and if a formidable obstacle does arise, “be strong!”
The quality of The Sun And Her Flowers follows an ebb and flow, a steady rhythm you can practically tap with your foot. I don’t know much about Rupi Kaur The Woman or exactly how much of what she says about herself is true, but she’s convinced me that all of it is, and her intensely personal moments are always where this book shines, very brightly. With fairly affecting language the speaker will describe their melancholy, their angst, their reverence for immigrant parents who gave them everything and received nothing, their disdain for a world in which they are a voiceless commodity, but then, like a punchline, they’ll take a really nice bath, they’ll bask in sunlight, sniff flowers, and generally find solace in the naturalistic paradise the book, with its title, insists is out there. Rupi Kaur does not have much to offer anyone who suffers from anything worse than an unusually capricious mood. She ruminates on her own place as a brown-skinned person and as a brown-skinned woman, both of which are treated to some quality poetry, but are always undermined by collapsing into some chicken-soup-for-the-soul, kumbaya denouement that paints a picture too large for her to address it all with anything but useless remarks and platitudes.
Kaur’s style is a rambling one, consisting of poetry that sometimes rhymes, sometimes doesn’t, and sometimes turns to flat-out prose. Often her chapters read like a journal entry on Adderall, and at times the number of different ways she can write poems about the same thing is impressive. Other times, however, she writes many poems about the same thing in the same way, and lingers in one place to the point of redundancy. I hesitate to criticize something strictly for being an unfocused mess, because there are writers out there who are praised on that exact point, perhaps too many, but this writer ought not be one of them. Her impulsive diversions and stubborn reiterations are ill-timed and poorly conceived. They serve mostly to make you at all times aware that this is a truly jittery collection of poetry.
‘wilting’ is the book’s most resonant discussion of romance, with ‘rising’ being its self-consciously brief b-sides collection. It is also the chapter that least exhibits Kaur’s downfalls, and is the longest sustained period of good quality in The Sun And Her Flowers. It is a mostly straightforward exploration of concluded love, and half-hearted motivational tracts are almost entirely absent. The speaker reminisces on expired ecstasies, and still yearns for the rekindling of a relationship that ended in pain. “i can still see our construction hats lying/ exactly where we left them/ pylons unsure of what to guard/ bulldozers gazing out for our return”; “i envy the winds/ who still witness you”.
In many ways, this book is exactly what you think it is. It’s feminine, it’s feminist, it’s sugary sweet and it’s prone to fits of disingenuous therapy. It’s also irresistibly forthright and uninterested in obscuring its melancholic darkness, which is when the book is plainly at its very best. Rupi Kaur has no answers, and any answers she tries to sell you are snake oil – but a hundred phony fortune cookie poems are a small price to pay for the sincerely good poetry there is to be found in The Sun And Her Flowers.