Getting Back to Basics

Rupi Kaur’s newest book hooks the reader with insights startling in their simplicity.

Getting Back to Basics

Despite Amazon repeatedly including Rupi Kaur’s poetry books in their “Top picks for you” section, I had no intention of reading her anytime soon. And I didn’t even have a good reason: I was just jealous.

Kaur, a 28-year-old Canadian poet, artist, and performer, self-published her first book, milk and honey, at age 21. Her debut and its follow-up, the sun and her flowers, have now sold more than 8 million copies and been translated into 42 languages. I, a 33-year-old grad student and also an aspiring poet, have yet to publish my first book — and in any case, I don’t think I should expect it to sell millions of copies.

It isn’t rational, of course, but sometimes it can feel difficult to be in the presence of such an impressive résumé without comparing oneself to it. And so, unintentionally, I have skirted Kaur’s poetry out of pure pettiness for what seems like years now.

Then, a book I had planned to use as inspiration for this column fell through. Pressed for time and seeking something I could finish quickly, I bought Kaur’s most recent collection, home body, and started paging through it.

She got under my skin almost at once. Take this poem, from the “mind” section of the book:

“i am not a victim of my life
what i went through
pulled a warrior out of me
and it is my greatest honor to be her”

Short and straightforward as this piece is, I could somehow hear the drums of battle booming around its edges by the time I finished reading.

My therapist, I think, would like me to recite this piece, also from the “mind” section, every day — or possibly have it tattooed on my forehead:

“how can i be so
cruel to myself
when i’m doing the best i can

- be gentle

Because Kaur often turns the poetic lens upon herself, using first-person perspective and emotion-centered language, she allows others to be drawn into her point of view rather than smothering them with it. Still, many of her themes are universal. This composition, from the “heart” section, shines with warmth and interconnectivity:

“i can live without romantic love
but i can’t survive without
the women i call friends
they know exactly what i need
before i even know i need it
the way we hold space
for each other is just different”

Poetry has always seemed like one of the most intricate and powerful puzzles in the world to me. If I could just fit together the right combinations of words, I’ve always thought, maybe I could move mountains, or at least achieve world peace.

(Note: I am not actually deluded enough to hope that I could singlehandedly disentangle the global morass in which we find ourselves today, but I do agree with John F. Kennedy that “when power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”)

Kaur’s pieces, however, remind me that this art form need not be grandiose or flamboyant to make an impression. Her short, intimate, lowercase poems (on her website, she explains that she composes in lowercase and only uses periods as punctuation because she admires the “simplicity” and “equality” of the Gurmukhi script used to write Punjabi) settle on the shoulders like a warm blanket just in time for fall, reminding me that I am enough:

“i’m breathing aren’t i
that’s gotta be a sign that
the universe is on my side
if i’ve made it this far
i can make it all the way”

This November, I plan to participate in National Novel Writing Month for the second time, so I already have a writing goal set up for the next few weeks. After reading home body, I’m tempted to pick up my poetry journal again, too. Kaur may not have achieved universal unity, but her words broke through my fears of inadequacy and emboldened me to start writing again. And that’s a kind of magic all its own.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.

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