(REVIEW) Where the Pavement Turns to Sand: Pacific Standard Time, Kevin Opstedal

Everything here emanates from the sea     and from Hamlet Every transcendental emergency    hovering on the horizon just long enough for me to get a read on it (from ‘90-percent water’)

> Pacific Standard Time is a book of poems about the ocean and the slippery language that dances around it. In the introduction to the collection, Noel Black aptly describes Opstedal’s style as ‘”surf noir” – a vernacular that’s equal parts Venice beach Boardwalk and Palo Alto strip mall’. And this is really what the poems are like: gliding by with the luminous light-heartedness of a sunny beach, but always marked by the dark charm and sophisticated poise of the open sea. The visions Opstedal conjures up are as much airy as they are precise and hypnotic. His poems are always seductive in the etymological sense of the word: leading the reader astray, along beaches soaked with fragments of memory, along the flickering glow of the seawater, or deep into an ocean that functions as a surrealist time machine.


>Pacific Standard Time is also a mighty book of poetry in every sense of the word. When it came through my door, in all of its 200-odd bubble-wrapped pages, my flatmate actually woahed (‘That is a lot of poems.’) I had been looking forward to reading Opstedal’s work for a while, having encountered his work a few times here and there. I took the big book to bed, maybe a bit scared, sure I’d end up carrying it around for weeks. By the next afternoon, I’d read it all. One thing I can say for sure about this book: it is a collection about the sea that actually reads like a breeze. There is an effortlessness to Opstedal’s mastery of transient, palpable images, living scenery, and crepuscular light tricks that makes his book perfectly controlled in its seamless experimentation. It’s not so much as if form tried to mirror content, here, because there is no sense of ‘trying’. This feel like a poet who has spent so much time by the sea that he cannot help but replicate its ways.

>It’s hard to tell if the collection slowly travels a very long distance, or works like a wild daydream that never actually leaves the boardwalk. (And the great thing about the size of the book is that it gives Opstedal the potential to achieve both). In a literal sense, things never stop happening in Pacific Standard Time: just when you think a poised image has crystalised in front of you, it starts moving; Opstedal shifts the sand under your feet, he makes landscapes appear only to transfigure them, splintered line by splintered line; everything in his poems keeps folding out kaleidoscopically. The charm of coasting Opstedal’s ocean is that the sea is neither like an untamed beast, nor one you can entirely trust; it draws you closer to itself only to disappear as soon as you think you know what you’re seeing. Reading Pacific Standard Time is really like watching the waves break on a beach: presence resolves into absence; same water, never the same water.


>Most of the poems are set in an infinite present, both syntactically and atmospherically. From the very beginning, Opstedal initiates a subtle undulation between a voice that is very immediate, and a stance that is often positively nostalgic, without ever sounding too wistful or contrived:

The late afternoon sky was like something Miss Montana 1979 spilled on her bikini out near the ice machine at the Sea Garden Motel in Pismo (…) Still there is that light & heavy wind to contend with & a dusty swimming pool blue turquoise sky rocking all the way back to the Land of the Dead w/ a few thin clouds feathering out as though they had something to say but thought better of it (from ‘Curse of the Surf Zombie’)

>Another way Opstedal’s writing is simultaneously now and backward-looking is his fondness of anecdotes from the lives of famous poets that relate to the sea, as if the shore functioned as a time portal, or a still hinge through which time passes and mixes with itself like water. These stories are often mundane and told prosaically, in a way that makes them indistinguishable from the images of contemporary California.

I was thinking of John Donne doing the handjive out on the pier in a dream where the pavement turns to sand & Bukka White taught me slide guitar (‘With absolute zero reading on the consciousness meter’) ‘Shelley must have lived like this on the mediterranean only the waves weren’t as good’ (from ‘Los Oxidados’)

>In contrast with this hazy temporality – leaving the reader somewhere between vintage cars,  Paradise Lost, TV infomercials, and eBay, or outside time altogether – the poems are very geographically rooted. This book is not only filled to the brim, but also built upon exquisite references to Opstedal’s Central California and its delightful toponyms. There is something about the way Opstedal writes these familiar places, however, that always delivers them twofold: half authentic, half romanticised. Opstedal’s Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Pismo and Pescadero are neither too prosaically familiar nor reduced to a type; just made larger, more complex, and more captivating by his lingering on their juicy names and sunny connotations – they occupy both themselves and the popular image of themselves, in what feels like a game of dressing up.


>All these choices blurring the one into the multiple make Pacific Standard Time into a fluid journey or a glowing immersion into a space that is calm yet alive with continuous change; the poems peppered with liquid words like ‘leaky’ and liquid images like dreams; to borrow Opstedal’s own words, his language ‘tastes the powdered edges of dreams’ with calm and lucid reassurance, his poems ‘sometimes (…) sprout wings & take to the sky, / other times, wingless, they just seem to / swim through the air’. He is a master of the fleeting line – like a wave, very much there, but retreating elsewhere (although it is not quite certain where). Sometimes the lines are foggy, they leave and come back; sometimes they are water that becomes sound that becomes air that becomes light, like in ‘Palisades’:

It feels like my brain has liquified & is sloshing up against the inside of my skull. People pay good money to feel like this & here I am getting it for free. This morning’s all about the fog & thin drizzle, drin thizzle, damp & eternal-like. I can step between the rain drops if I shut my eyes & think about something else, but it’s a long way from here to there. & I can’t find my shoes.

Opstedal fills the air with iodine shimmers of rain; wave after wave, line by line to the open ocean.

Pacific Standard Time is published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and can be bought here.


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Text by Denise Bonetti Author photography by Gary Leonard for Los Angeles Public Library

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