Memories take Enni Harlan back in her first poetry collection, Remember the Flowers, and we are on the journey with her. Over the course of forty-two concise and vividly descriptive poems, the reader is taken through seasons in the United States and South Korea. Each detail embodies a different personality applied to it, like “the face of some unknown celebrity” in a magazine, which Harlan, age five, unceremoniously vomits on as her plane lands in South Korea. No detail is insignificant to the narrator, who turns a simple event into her next important adventure. The series of autobiographical poems tell a story that features no damsels in distress, dragons, or talking fish that happen to live in a lake at the top of a mountain. Harlan has shown that a book does not have to resemble a blockbuster movie to keep a reader interested. The only ghosts in Enni Harlan’s poetry are her everyday haunts: the remembrance of family stories that have been passed down through generations, worries about herself and her family, and her lacking Korean vocabulary (“I don’t get half / The teacher says. / They talk in Korean, I’m only half / And most / Of my vocabulary’s food: / Bulgogi, kimchi, subak.”) Harlan’s poetry is rhythmic and flows naturally. For example, in her poem “In the Evening:”
“The sky darkens
Still we walk
Past the lamp posts,
Past the tree
I fell from once last summer.”
In a conversational tone, Harlan lays out one of her main themes—imagination—and she makes sure that people know who she is. The sentence “I was Mary Lennox’s long-lost twin, / walking into the secret garden” starts Harlan’s poem “My Secret Garden.” In this simple sentence, Harlan shows that imagination is important to her—and so is who she is in her daydreams, because that is one of the places where she feels like herself. Another example of her use of imagination is in the poem “Beneath the Fruit Tree:” “Our teeth crashed down on seeds, not flesh. / The trickle of juice was painfully bitter. / Only we and the parrots ate from that tree, / feasting/ on imagination.”
While many of the poems are playful, some poems are more serious. Remember the Flowers questions the “American dream.” This question is not asked and answered bluntly, but it is hinted upon through many poems and descriptions. For example, in her poem “Balcony:”
“We journeyed to Anyang, where Umma grew up—
Where they’d moved from house to house.
The first house, a mere
Shadow in her memory,
Shared with her cousin’s family.
There she played with her cousins till they
Went to live
‘The American Dream.’”
Here, the “American Dream” is not something happy and inspiring; it inflicts a feeling of separation and gloom. Harlan translates the sadness of family breaking apart. The stanza portrays the feeling of loss. In this case, one is left with a feeling that leaving family for the United States for a hazy vision of the promising future is almost a betrayal.
In her poems, Harlan also expresses her empathy for humans and other animals. In “Fumigated,” Harlan’s Appa (father) rushes to get Umma’s (mother) mirror table from their house, which was going to be fumigated because of termites. Coming home, Appa says:
“I saw the termites and they said, ‘Hi.’
‘Get out of here,’ I said. ‘You’re about to die!’”
Then, in the following sentences, Enni Harlan continues:
“I laugh at him.
A ridiculous story but
I almost want to believe it.”
Harlan finds the story funny, but she also wants the story to be true. This leads the reader to assume that the narrator somehow either feels connected to these termites—she feels sad about them dying because they have become a part of her house—or that she is unhappy about killing other creatures, no matter how small. Here, as in Harlan’s other poems, the events that may seem minuscule and insignificant gain a greater meaning. This is exactly what good poetry is meant to do—zoom in on small details and change the way people look at things.
Remember the Flowers is a captivating read, every poem full of hidden pockets leading to a bigger (or smaller) subject. Near the end of the collection, as Harlan begins to speak about the Covid-19 pandemic, the poems are the most relatable (“We walked a while, / six feet apart. / Each time I smiled / I forgot / she couldn’t see it.”), but the rest of the poems are also easy to understand and relate to. All in all, Enni Harlan offers us a touching and thoughtful collection of poems about belonging, family, cultural differences (and similarities), and the world around us.
Remember the Flowers by Enni Harlan, winner of the Stone Soup Book Contest 2021. Children’s Art Foundation, Incorporated, 2022. Buy the book via our Amazon storefront.