Staff Pick: Tom Large’s “October”

Tom Large 6.19

George Clack is a member of the Little Patuxent Review’s Board of Directors. In this post, he shares his staff pick from the Summer 2019 issue.

A poem in the flesh is not the same as a poem on the page. Each time I attend a Little Patuxent Review (LPR) launch reading, this old truth is brought home to me. In June it was Tom Large reciting his poem “October” that reminded me.

Unlike most of the writers at these LPR events, Large did not read his poem: as he explained, he’s having trouble with his vision and needs very large print, so he recited the poem from memory. For a few moments it felt as if we were in the presence of an ancient bard voicing his poetry in the traditional way.

As I followed the poet’s words on the page, I noticed that he’d made a couple of small changes in wording in the printed version of the poem, which had taken runner-up honors in the Pratt Library’s 2019 Poetry Contest. Tweaks are a poet’s prerogative, of course: “Poems are never finished,” Paul Valery famously said, “just abandoned.” Large’s poem seemed far from abandoned; the tweaks improved it a bit.

“October” felt special then in the moment and also later as I read and reread it in my copy of LPR. What I liked initially is that it begins with a clear, low-key picture, a fishing scene in October, with the right amount of physical detail to make the reader see it.

“In the windy silence this afternoon
you and I spincast
at perch schooled in that tidewater cove.”

The relaxed tone and focus on drawing a specific image remind me a little of one of my favorite scene-setters, Matthew Arnold, in “Dover Beach”:

“The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone….”

And, speaking of that school of perch, Large’s first stanza also gives us these marvelous lines:

“neither do they seem to mind
the spins and twirls of our fan dancers
alluring little lies we arc
into their wild cotillion.”

The “alluring little lies” of the fan dancer fishing lures and the “wild cotillion” of this passage tell me Large is a real poet, one with a fine feel for unexpected metaphor and the interplay of sound.

In addition, Large’s first stanza introduces the “you” and “I” characters who will play their parts in the poem’s climax in the third stanza. The fish aren’t biting in this poem, but that doesn’t deter the steadfast fishermen. The power of the memory for the poet resides in the process – you and I fishing together – not at all in the catch.

In the third stanza the poem circles back upon itself to end with another detailed fishing image in another October. It’s the bravura turn that makes the poem’s theme explicit.

“It’s not that you’re dead, exactly,
on these October afternoons
but that you’re off casting
standing in the marshes on another plane
with red maple leaves blowing down
from woods across some cove
and a ragged line of geese,
a scribble on a leaden sky.”

Here Large does what good poets do: he evokes an emotion that cannot be translated rationally into words. In part, the speaker suggests a common feeling – the way a place, an activity, a tiny detail can trigger a powerful memory of a dear dead person. The red maple leaves blowing down and the ragged line of geese and that leaden sky put a melancholy spin on it for me. I like that we never learn precisely who the “you” of this poem is. It’s almost an invitation for the reader to fill in the blank.

As I get older, this unexpected raising of ghosts happens to me – and, I suspect, to others – frequently. The opening bars of a Benny Goodman clarinet solo on the radio the other day brought back “on another plane” my parents and their collection of big-band .78s with a stunning intensity. I’d argue that one among many elements that make for good literature is the author’s ability to establish this kind of emotional recognition with the reader’s own experiences.

I also appreciate the fact that “October’s” theme ties it to a grand tradition of English poetry over the centuries: mutability, the notion that time passes relentlessly and nothing is permanent. As poets know, all shall fade away – except perhaps on that other plane of memory.

Want to read more from our Summer 2019 issue? Purchase your copy.

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