The Cosmology of Transience: Kevin Opstedal's California Redemption Value

Alex Rieser

I don’t know a writer who doesn’t struggle in some way with the place that they’re from. Often I wonder if my hometown, the place that I was raised and spent my youth, is the only place I will truly ever resonate with. The only place I can ever understand. Some writers leave and find it impossible to resonate with any place but home—take Cesar Vallejo who left Peru for Paris after producing his master work Trilce only to feel stunted for the rest of his life, perpetually waiting for some redemptive future that might never arrive. Some return to that home wherever they go; Joyce with Dublin, Olson with Gloucester, Opstedal with the California coast. Opstedal was born and raised in Venice and at moments in California Redemption Value it becomes evident that nobody knows California like he does.

But it’s a complicated knowledge, and the struggle is apparent. California Redemption Value captures the melancholy of this “indistinct Paradise,” (106) the eclectic, ferocious beauty of the coast, and the poverty of relationships in vagrant encounters. A landscape dominated by nature where relationships exist only in the memory of past nights and in the face of the ambivalent tide. In this condition of transience, the most completely conceived characters are Kevin’s (and my) favorite literary figures and they are cross-dressing and hitch-hiking in zigzags along PCH in a world where California is Rome and all roads inevitably lead back. But this is a condemnation, imagine Kerouac’s On the Road but with no getting out.

I’m interested most by the cosmology of transience found in Opstedal’s poems. The players of the book are characterized by their lack of articulation—effigies of figures pulled from the pages of a book found in a junk pile at “the Existential Thrift Store.” (25) I think these poets running around serves as a foil for the relationships with the living inhabitants of Kevin’s California, with whom understandings cannot seem to be formed. That: “Baudelaire / bottled beer” (80) and “Drinking cough syrup with John Keats” (79) are there in place of the connections that are constantly faltering.

Moments where actual people come into the poems mirror the speaker’s loneliness: “her eyes/ were chrome-plated replicas” (24) as though Opstedal might step into them like Orpheus into the silver mirror. Or this frighteningly beautiful image found in In The Wind:


“I could watch her take

                        her clothes off forever

wondering if she could

go all the way like

down to peeling the

flesh from her body to

reveal her pure white bones

                        & then crush those

                                    bones into a fine white

powder you could watch get

                        blown away by the wind” (83)

 

Always silent, always inextricably pulled by the wind or the tide, so that this description of a wave becomes also a metaphor in all respects for the coming and going of people in the collection: “I watched walls of sheet glass stand up like vertical swimming pools then crash soundlessly in on themselves. It was all very quiet.” (23) The building-up is inseparable from the falling away for Opstedal. And the descriptions of these wraith-like acquaintances go on, they are the stuff of legend: “resembling nothing so much as those faceless inhabitants of dreams who carry messages from deep in where the dreaming’s stored.” (100)

This California terrain becomes as the beach, a broken, a jagged piece of a puzzle; but as any puzzle section it inevitably fits into another and with one poem in particular titled Long Division we hear echoes of Long Beach, and pieces of Pismo, and of course Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets:


Long Division

 

Since this both ethereal & sublunary compass

  remove assured innocence disguised as this our

absence such as would obliquely endure an

  elemental breach the eternal vigil at the corner

taco stand may portent dull privations for

  what’s left of a love this pure

The trees tossing their leaves so cleverly against

  the window glass the wind revising the sky

such grace here bends in fever or else with

  counsel as it were to other things past all recompense

You’d mark those hours notched with a dull blade all that

  may be imputed worthy of several epiphanies

but none so diminished as one assigned to shadows

  & so as if a religion could be built of resignation alone

you betray the obdurate passion that lies beneath (105)


with what are probably the most enlivened line breaks of the book, this poem is exemplary of D. A. Powell’s concept that poets attempt again and again to write the same poem getting a bit closer to the ideal with every version, until we write ourselves into silence on the subject. But I think there’s more to it than that, I think that as the waves’ dull roar is constant, perhaps there can be no silence for Kevin, that this continuous scattering of encounter is an eternal vigil to the landscape.  And if there has ever been a single line capable of encompassing the movement of an entire book, that line is: “as if a religion could be built of resignation alone”. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever argued with the terrain of their home (the struggle within-which all we are is upheld), which is everyone.

California Redemption Value

By Kevin Opstedal

UNO Press

ISBN:978-1-60801-066-0



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