The sentimentality of childhood is one that we carry with us throughout our lives, which is exactly what Noreen Ocampo captures in her chapbook Not Flowers (Variant Literature, 2022). This nostalgic coming-of-age poetry takes us through stages of the speaker’s adolescence and unleashes a plethora of joyful and bittersweet feelings. Ocampo’s use of the natural world grounds us in the viscerality of youth by exploring our own upbringings in concert with the poem’s own flower roots.
The first part of the collection, “white snapdragon,” starts us on our journey through the speaker’s formative years by reflecting back on their own innocence. Ocampo creates an unawareness in the speaker through their childlike observations, such as “I miss our old backyard and how everything grew into everything” and “the sky explodes into a meadow of neon.” The nescience of the speaker is supported even further when they say “I should have been afraid I loved like that at eleven” and elucidates the purity of a child’s love. Ocampo shows us that there is some truth in the “ignorance is bliss” cliché where our youthfulness is concerned.
We get a closer glimpse of the speaker’s perceptions and how those develop throughout age in the next section, “limonium.” The speaker reminisces on seemingly typical interactions between them and their family, and in examining that household dynamic, they set a melancholic tone, stating, “I can never return to these places” and “i want him to know what love looks like.”
Ocampo artfully preserves the physicality of memory in each piece while offering a new cognizant lens to view them through. These memories are redefined in some of the speaker’s own observations in recalling their experiences, examples being “some parts of me never stop searing” and “trust that you know / what color the flame should be.” This evaluation of each scenario suggests that there is more hope beneath the surface than what meets the eye.
With the progression of age in each section, Ocampo uses this difference to show the speaker’s transformation in how they display love and who they have love for. In the third section, “yellow rose,” the speaker develops new relationships and in forming these close bonds, their idea of love becomes more complex, expressing that they “just haven’t seen other people’s hearts & the weakness.” The speaker identifies with the people they love, and in acquiring these new identities, they question their own: “I am drawn in a side character’s uncertain lines.” Ocampo shows us that we give a little of ourselves to every person we share love for, and in collecting these pieces of people we carry with us, we often find ourselves reshaping our boundaries and who we are as a person. We watch the speaker find this moment of clarity– “we’re more than a collection of penciled-in lines.”
In the last section, “dianthus,” the chapbook comes full-circle with the speaker’s adventure in overcoming the anguish that comes with self-discovery and their own outlook on life. Ocampo illustrates that there is safety in stability when regarding the people we love, showing us through the speaker’s eyes, “we’ll be so / glad we learned to smile at each other.” Part of the beauty in growing up is learning how much people mean to you and having the ability to look back, knowing that you loved them before you knew anything else. The speaker also touches on the inevitability of growing up, asking, “Do you trust your luck? If I tell you / luck was never a part of it, / what then?” Ocampo’s message that we all go through the motions of finding ourselves creates a community among her readers, in that there isn’t a roadmap to navigate life.
Ocampo’s Not Flowers is refreshingly optimistic in how it reshapes our perspectives on childhood. It reminds us to remember where we came from and teaches us to find joy in our experiences. Not Flowers healed my inner child and taught me this: our growing pains are fleeting.
Z Eihausen is an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she studies English and Philosophy. Her extracurriculars include dancing (poorly), hanging out with bees, playing saxophone, and attempting to make peace with her beloved cat.
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