The ancient Greeks taught the existence of three kinds of love. Eros is intimate love, including the kind caused by infatuation. Philia is brotherly (or sisterly), the kind felt toward a close or best friend. And agape is a more general love, bestowed freely on someone regardless of whether or not a relationship exists.
Poet Ollie Bowen embraces all three kinds of love in her debut poetry collection, On the Occasion of a Wedding. Dedicated to a couple as a wedding gift, the collection of 74 poems is drawn largely from her own marriage. Bowen engages with the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental ways two people can experience and express their love for one another.
Love’s poetic range is as deep as it is wide. Bowen writes of love as wildly passionate, candid, frightening, occasionally drunk, reverent, admiring, demanding, territorial, expansive, even porcupine-ish. And this rings true; this is exactly what love is like. What makes the collection ring even more true is that even though Bowen cherishes married love, she does not idealize it.
The poems make full use of the natural world as metaphors for love—the sea, the beach, the moon, monarch butterflies, flowers, even a jellyfish. They describe the sensations of color, taste, and touch. They move the emotions of love, like passion and anger. And the reader finds that love can be certain and uncertain, often simultaneously, and can surface in the most surprising of ways. Even with thistles.
All she could do
was wait for his rain.
It never came.
She planted dahlias
so thistles would not grow,
but without rain,
dahlias would not grow.
So thistles grew,
thorned and noble,
and the goldfinches and
fritillary butterflies came,
humble and pained.
He brought more love
than she’d ever known,
when his thistles came.
Bowen is a poet, author and scholar, with degrees in education, business and science (although she says her favorite subject is rhetorical argument). Raised in Alabama, she currently lives with her family in northern California.
On the Occasion of a Wedding reminds me, a bit, of the famous love passage in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, starting with “Love is patient and kind, love does not envy or boast,” and so on. The saint was writing about the agape form of love, but it can apply to eros and philia as well. Bowen writes about all three, and it feels like something of a celebration.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish