On the Eagle and the Lightning / Joshua Alan Sturgill
One of the oldest works in As Far As I Can Tell is the opening poem “The Eagle and the Lightning.” Deeply biographical, it is also something of an optimist’s prophecy. There were three direct influences on the writing of the poem which I want to consider here. But I am not an outsider, not a critic. I am standing in the middle of the poem, in a sense, looking back at the past and forward to the future, and all these times seem to constitute a single Word. What is that Word?
I returned to college quite late in educational life: I was 36 when I started the undergraduate program at St. John’s in Santa Fe. Not only a belated entry, but sudden as well: I moved to New Mexico with no intention of seeking anything but bright air and ancient places. But I kept meeting Johnnies (St. John’s grads) around town, and it became clear that the path forward was through—a bachelor’s degree.
The first few weeks were hellish. I felt completely out of place. I was the oldest student on a very small campus, and everything seemed calculated to disorient and confuse me. I’m used to a slight feeling of disorientation in new situations; I don’t adjust to new environments very quickly. But added to the stress of study and financial concerns was a series of very vivid dreams which never failed to wake me up in a state of exhaustion. They weren’t nightmares, just very intense memories of previous institutions of learning.
I would be wandering aimlessly through my elementary school because a teacher sent me on an errand, and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be looking for. Or, I would be in a seventh grade science class, going over chemistry notes in my head, but the notes made no sense. Or, I would be in my old high school at night when no one was around, just looking through books in the library.
While starting school and nightly reliving bits of my childhood, I was also reading Black Elk Speaks. The prophetic visions of Black Elk made an extraordinary impression. The title of the poem is taken from his explanation of some of his people’s mythology. And since mythology is contagious, his stories became part of my story.
The final influence on the poem was an acquaintance who has since become a dear friend. He was in his 70’s when he moved into the apartment house where I was living in Santa Fe, and his stories of being raised by an African American family in inner city Detroit in the 1940’s changed and broadened my view of American culture. He had attended a Roman Catholic seminary but later became a Buddhist. When we met, he had converted to Orthodox Christianity, yet without in the least losing any of the hard-won truth and beauty of his earlier confessions.
So “The Eagle and The Lightning” slowly came together as a kind of composite oracle, with images pulled from new schooling, childhood memories and conversations with older friends about the stages of life. The “Seven Ages of Man” is a common motif in traditional societies, and the poem seemed naturally to divide and repose at seven stanzas.
The opening image of a child’s front yard is an actual early memory. The man being lost on the ocean is an oblique description of my early adulthood. The Revelation that “whispers paradox” is certainly my encounter with the Christian East. But some of the other images, I don’t have an explanation for. They were born as they are or were formed through revisions. Perhaps they really are prophetic, and will reveal their meaning at the appointed times?
In preparing the manuscript for the book, I returned the poem for the first time since I’d written it a few years earlier. This reconsideration prompted one of the concluding works—the poem “As Far As I Can Tell”— was a reaction to my re-acquaintance with “The Eagle.” The title of the book both comes from and inspires this later poem.
As a final thought, I feel I would not give the poem its full due without mentioning that the “search for the lost heart” seems to be my life’s leitmotif. I run into this phrase or some variation of it in a multitude of places, texts, conversations. From the Greek Patristic tradition, the Confucian sages, the Upanishads—this search for the Heart is a universal-but-silent Imperative.
This idea of the lost heart is stated somewhat openly at the conclusion of “The Eagle and the Lightning.” But as I reflect on it, I think the entire poem is a seven-fold, stuttering articulation of the imperative: Search.