NOt Flowers by Noreen Ocampo (Variant Literature 2022)
Reviewed by Jillian A. Fantin
Very infrequently does a poet arrest their reader in so few pages and with such a delicate touch as does Noreen Ocampo. Following her debut micro collection Teaspoons, Ocampo’s Not Flowers continues her exploration of the soft, the familial, and the power of memory. The poetry of Not Flowers reads with the serenity of a Studio Ghibli meadow combined with the timeless Victorian illustrations by Kate Greenaway, curating a fantasy-adjacent field of poetry combining memory and the senses. Nonetheless, Ocampo’s Not Flowers remains deeply rooted in the present, utilizing the power of sensorial memory to curate the speaker’s soft, loving contemporary moment. Ultimately, Ocampo disrupts the seemingly dichotomous relationship between being a flower versus a “not-flower” and finds tenderness and nostalgia to be elements of strength, rather than of weakness.
Formally, Ocampo divides Not Flowers into four distinct sections—“white snapdragon,” “limonium,” “yellow rose,” and “dianthus”—named after flowers containing a number of historical, mythic, and folk translations. The micro collection’s title reveals itself through these divisions: though these poetic containers are named after flowers, the poems themselves work away from the powers of genus in the realm of flora. Regardless of a flower’s legacy, its various historical and mythic meanings, Ocampo does not allow her poetry to be constrained by these meanings. Instead, Ocampo proves poetically dexterous, employing a multiplicity of forms and complex explorations of memory, place, and selfhood without so much as a hiccup. Every poem tangles together into strong vines of language, and every poem evades a single poetic definition. Ocampo, then, utilizes her formal deftness to curate the hope found in being both a flower in softness and of being a “not-flower” in the ability to transcend categorization.
Throughout its study of tenderness and the negation of opposition between being both flowers and “not-flowers,” Not Flowers’ greatest strength appears right at the start of the collection in the first poem, “Peachtree.” Ocampo situates the piece in Suwanee, Georgia, a choice that immediately impels her readers to travel with her to the American South. Readers may have never lived in or traveled to Georgia, but the speaker of “Peachtree” negates that possible distance through the first line: “I miss my old backyard” (1). Regardless of whether we have visited Georgia’s Suwanee, we certainly know what it feels like to miss, to long for soft memories. Ocampo’s Suwanee is entirely hers and, thus, entirely accessible to every one of her readers through the power of personal memory and her speaker’s vulnerability.
Not Flowers’ first-person pronoun reveals the speaker’s vulnerability, from the speaker’s realization in “Lullabies’” that she may never return to the sounds and sights of childhood to her fond “I wish you could have seen me” in “candle days” (6 & 14). Further, this first-person recollection suggests that nostalgic softness—that is, being a flower—affords one great strength, power, and hope to find self-assurance, happiness, and love for themselves—ultimately making one a “not-flower.”
Ocampo highlights the speaker’s aforementioned culmination into both a flower and a “not-flower” through the end pair of poems, “litmus test” and “Yesterday, I watched videos on manifesting.” Entirely composed of questions posed to the second-person “you,” “litmus test” does exactly as its title suggests and actively tests its reader with questions ranging from the concretely personal (“Would you buy flowers / for yourself?”) to the somewhat-abstractly communal (“Are you translating people’s face with kindness?”) (22). The onslaught of the second-person pronoun does not lull the reader into any sense of security as the collection ends; instead, “litmus test” actively engages the senses of the reader and invites them into intimacy alongside the first-person pronoun that has journeyed with the reader throughout the entire collection. Just as the poem’s lines are snugly paired into couplet stanzas, so too does Ocampo’s speaker insist on a soft coupling with the reader. Such coupling melds beautifully into “Yesterday, I watched videos on manifesting,” with the entire collection culminating in a single stanza:
I cannot believe
how happy I am. I believe how happy I am.
I fall asleep so easily &
even in every dream I survive. (23)
Not Flowers’ speaker is happy among the flowers and “not-flowers” in this new place rife with sunshine and love, and Ocampo infuses not a hint of cynicism into this final piece. No, this collection is entirely concerned with sincerity, communicating the brilliant present found when living a life both soft and strong. Being a flower and being a “not-flower,” then, affords one the ability to live in the present moment and, as this final poem shows, hope for the best todays that can possibly be.
Instead of remaining stagnant in the realm of reminiscence like a dried wedding bouquet crumbling in an attic, Noreen Ocampo’s Not Flowers blends its explorations into a brilliant near-manifesto of personal happiness, love, and worth more akin to a window box planter carefully tended. Ocampo’s newest micro chapbook insists that remembrance of the past is as strong an act as it is soft, rendering a radical way of life outside the calloused culture of forced capitalism, like those dandelions that grow from sidewalk cracks towards a sunshine patch. Simply put, Noreen Ocampo’s Not Flowers is a powerfully tender guide that teaches its readers how to simply be.
Jillian A. Fantin (@jilly_stardust on Twitter) is a poet currently based in Texas. They are the co-founder and editor-in-chief of RENESME LITERARY (@RenesmeLiterary), recipient of a 2021 Poet Fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and a regular collaborator with mixed media artist Kate Luther. Jillian’s work is published in or forthcoming from The American Journal of Poetry, TIMBER, The Daily Drunk, Harpur Palate, Selcouth Station, Homology Lit, and elsewhere.