I’ve been accused of being a free spirit all my life….and with good reason. I treasure my freedom, revel in unscheduled days, and balk at things that confine my choices. It took a brilliant teacher and William Shakespeare to awaken a deep love of structure in me.
Many years ago I was attending a weekend workshop with a beloved mentor, Peggy Nash Rubin. Peggy is the founding director of the Center for Sacred Theatre in Ashland, Oregon. In the course of our weekend together, she recited Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 which begins,
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate…
I was transfixed. The words seemed to shimmer as they flew from her mouth. She breathed life into each syllable, coaxing Shakespeare’s assembly of words into pure music.
I was so inspired by her recitation that I went home and learned the sonnet by heart. I still recite it to this day, usually on long car rides. Once I’d learned Shakespeare’s sonnet I inspired to create one of my own.
The Shakespearean sonnet has many constrictions in rhythm, line length and rhyming scheme. And I – the lover of freedom– was surprised by how deeply I fell in love with structure. The rigors of the form forced my imagination into new territory. I had to find fresh ways to express an idea. Unexpected metaphors and phrases arose from my imagination, called forth by strict limitations.
I’ve written several sonnets in the intervening years, but none I enjoy more than the one the bald eagles inspired.
I share my neighborhood with a family of bald eagles. They nest in a tall white pine a few blocks from my home on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. One day as I was walking near their nest, my eye caught the shadow of one of them passing close overhead. The first line of a sonnet floated into my imagination. Then came the next line and the next as I finished my hour-long sojourn along the river.
Eventually the whole piece was completed but for the last two lines. I found them a few months later riding in a car in the mountains of Montana. As soon as I spotted a bald eagle sitting atop a telephone pole against the blue-blue sky, I felt the last two lines unspool into my mind.
So with a bow to Peggy Rubin, Will Shakespeare, and the bald eagles of the Mississippi River and the Montana Rockies, I give you….
My eye just caught your muscled wings in flight
An aching joy surged here inside my chest
Your heavy body lifting toward the light
Pulled me in tandem upward to be blessed
I gaze into your fierce and burning eye
It speaks to me of distances unbound
Recalls the song of wide and wild sky
Where whistling wind becomes the soul’s true sound
When death has left my body just a shell
My friends will build a platform in a tree
And bid you come and feast and take your fill
That bird and woman form one entity
There is no better heaven I can dream:
Exchanging woman’s voice for eagle’s scream
© Barbara McAfee