I had a professor in college who used to dispense life-advice while he was handing back our papers on modern poetry. He would stalk the room with a stack of essays in his hands, peeling them off the top one by one while we watched him in nervous silence, and free-associating while he handed them back on matters small, large, and poetically urgent. Memorizing poems was one of his favorite topics that term—why we needed to do it, what we would gain. “It doesn’t matter what poem you choose,” he insisted, picking another paper off of the pile with his long, spindly fingers and scanning the desks for the author. That’s how he made us all feel: like authors. “Just pick a favorite and memorize it. You have no idea how much it will add to your life … Every time you’re put on hold or stuck in a waiting room, you’ll have something to do.” It took a seminar on Joyce and Yeats—he taught that class too; I remember feeling bewildered when he gave an exam wearing a black sweat suit and puffy red Rebook sneakers—for me to memorize my first poem. I picked “Who Goes With Fergus,” a galloping enigma from Yeats’s symbolist period:
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
I had no idea what the poem meant. I still don’t—not really. It’s deeply mysterious. There is the world we know, with its hopes and fears for brooding, fueled by love’s “bitter mystery,” and there is another world ruled by Fergus in his “brazen car”: the wood and its shadows, the sea and its distant white breast, the stars wandering the sky in their disheveled constellations. The poem took my breath away every time I recited it, and I spoke it aloud whenever I could: at stoplights, in waiting rooms, on the gurney in a recovery room after having brain surgery when I was twenty-one. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t lost anything after spending nine hours in the dark of anesthesia, that I was still, underneath my new scars and hospital buzzcut, the same person who had gone in. Fergus still ruled the brazen cars. I was the same. Only I was different. Continue reading…