Kevin Opstedal. CALIFORNIA REDEMPTION VALUE, University of New Orleans Press, 2011.
Kevin Opstedal — PACIFIC STANDARD TIME: New & Selected Poems. Edited by Noel Black and Julien Poirier. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016
At the beginning of 2016, I posted an entry on the poetry of Kevin Opstedal entitled “The Poet Laureate of PCH.” That commentary focused on a set of chapbooks Opstedal has had published over the past couple of decades. Last summer, around August, Ugly Duckling Presse inquired about whether I would be interested in a review copy of Opstedal’s Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems. “PST,” however, was not the first full-scale book in Opstedal’s ongoing saga of publication to arrive on Molino Avenue in Long Beach. My recollection is that a copy of California Redemption Value (“CRV”) had arrived shortly after my January post, so this past Fall found my desk being inhabited by two overlapping collections of “selected” poems by Opstedal.
It is difficult to recommend one of these volumes over the other, since both enable a reader to defamiliarize her or his usual habits of imaginative comprehension. This is to say that anyone who still believes in the consciousness-altering possibilities of reading needs to sit down with both these books and flense the preconditions that one has become all too comfortable with. A half-century ago, one would probably have been urged to imbibe various pharmaceuticals as a way to reconstructing reality. Opstedal’s poems offer the advantage of a much safer passage to renewed perceptions of the ordinary moment.
Lest one fear that some harrowing confrontation is in the offing, let me hasten to reassure you that Opstedal is not one of these visionary poets whose goal is to be your tutelary avatar. While his poems do possess, in fact, a peculiar seductive power, they exude a calm reassurance even in the midst of radiant uncertainty, and they do so with no sense of the writing being an effort to self-mythologize the author. This degree of equilibrium is different than that proposed by Walt Whitman’s shamanic aurora: “How quickly would the sunrise kill me / Could I not now and always send sunrise out of me.” Instead of turbulent pyrotechnics, Opstedal’s acrobatic centering takes place in slow motion, enabling your commitment as a reader to enfold itself with the palpable immanence of his imagery.
I wonder about the day, the way the sun climbs
inside its own radiance & warms the pavement
I think it’s akin to snorkeling but
just exactly how this can be so I’m not sure
This kind of reverent deferral represents yet one more extension of negative capability into an ecology of mutual recognition between environment and self. The next stanza both lures the speaker deeper into this particular chronotope and jolts him into a distant dimension: “waves strum a little pre-Cambrian / rhythm & blues.” Opstedal’s intermingling of the contemporary moment and evolutionary perspective suggests a transplanting of Charles Olson’s surveillance of Gloucester within a geological framework, and it does not take much perusing of Opstedal’s poetry to find another such instance:
The pier was all lit up
like Mortuary Day
the word on the street was
strung out along insect balconies
like drifting sand in the Paleolithic diorama
Olson, however, would never dream of titling his poems in a manner such as Opstedal does in the above two instances: “Performing Brain Surgery with a Crowbar” and “Meat Pie in Paradise,” respectively. The disjuncture between the sardonic titles and the lyrical renitence underscoring the verses themselves might well stem from Opstedal’s truculent skepticism about the immediate future of his native state: “Everything here is a natural disaster.” Rather than succumbing to a dystopic vision, however, Opstedal reinvigorates the potential of the planet to assist human beings in regaining access to its solemn spheres of wonder. If this sounds well nigh impossible within the intellectual and aesthetic currents of the present moment, I can only testify to the singular effervescence of Opstedal’s poetry. One can open Pacific Standard Time at random and find oneself gliding with the language’s undulations with an ease that belies the encompassing grip of the images. I can recall very few such instances of such “oneness” with the words on the page. Opstedal’s poems glow as if they have absorbed season after season of incandescence, and yet allow one to stare directly at the center of the vision without the least squint from too much glare. Get this book and start to live with it.
For a review of Pacific Standard Time as a prime instance of “surf noir,” I would highly recommend Mike Sonksen’s recent article (Feb. 7, 2017) in Entropy magazine; it is the best single appreciation of Opstedal’s poetry I have read by any poet-critic in the United States. Sonksen does a superb job of providing the contextual literary history of small press publishing relevant to Opstedal’s development as a poet alongside insightful commentary on the poems themselves.