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Review: “Surf Noir” Relentless Waves of Image and Sound

Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems By Kevin Opstedal, Ugly Duckling Presse, 216 pp, 2016

Introductions in poetry collections are something I generally skip over. But after reading a few poems in Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems by Kevin Opstedal I decided Noel Black’s opening remarks might be useful, though the title of the intro – “Bansai Palm Trees: or Pre-Apocalyptic Romanticism and the Psychogeographic California Landscape Poetry of Kevin Opstedal” – could confuse the issue even more. However, it doesn’t. Mr. Black gives a fairly clear picture of a poet living a poetic life far away from academia, as free as a surf-bum (which Mr. Opstedal is) and dedicated to writing and running small-presses. I checked with a publisher friend in California (thanks Dave Boles) to see if “Surf Noir” was a movement in poetry that I had missed. It isn’t. This kind of poetry is confined to the California coast between Venice and Santa Cruz. It is heavily influenced by the Beat poets, Charles Bukowski and writers who were fueled by psychedelic drugs during the sixties and seventies. Thus informed, I dove back into this extensive volume.

The book is divided into three sections and seems to be chronological, though there is no clear indication of this provided. One page poems are the norm but a few run longer. Some of the poems are as dense as only psychedelically addled gibberish can be. Others are touching, funny, original and insistently rhythmic. And still others are absolutely brilliant.

“Surf Noir” (a descriptive coined by Mr. Opstedal) should be ocean oriented and, of course, these poems are all about the poet’s relationship with the sea, both as metaphor and as a natural fact. Recurring themes of tides, waves, sand and sometimes squalid, sometimes beautiful beach towns dominate the pages. Vivid colors, sad and broken people, decay and cleansing are themes with many variations. And this poet manages to make most of the variations work well and stay interesting. Surprises come often like these lines that open a poem called “The flames could be seen for miles”:

One of the earliest recorded

beach barbeques

was the cremation of Shelley

Or these from “Over the Edge”:

Another day made of preternatural acetate

folded to fit every corner of the sky

a kind of see-thru-origami

And there are surprisingly beautiful uses of language as in these lines from “Invasion of the Body Surfers”:

drenched in sunset

lavished with impartial tears

veering on azure blades above the splintered

paradigm its strings recast in silver

But this from “Duane Eddy Mows His Lawn” had me baffled, though I do like the sounds:

Open range cactus surf dramas

born of the sea & coastal fogs

a liquid territory landing with a THUD

as opposed to a SPLASH

I also like this author’s skill at making interesting titles: “The Bride of Frankenfish” “Seaslug Duckwalk” “Prelude to a Quaalude” “Apollinaire’s Brother-in-Law” and “Jodie Foster at Malibu” which opens with:

Something really great & pure like a skin rash

they tell you not to scratch but you do anyway

like hepatitis in a very deliberate red dress

Some quirky images live in the pages of this book. While some of the two-hundred or so poems here are nearly impenetrable, most are well worth spending some time unraveling. Metaphorically interesting pieces, insightful observations of place and time and people, introspective explorations are all part of this mixed bag. Read these poems aloud and you’ll find great enjoyment in the sounds they make.

Buy the book. Help the surfer find new ways to look at the waves.

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