Coastal Poetry: Dear Oxygen and California Redemption Value

Patrick James Dunagan

I remember, a couple of years ago, a senior UN civil servant saying, “The Third World leaders speak about Moscow, but in their hearts they all want to go to California.” The images are very powerful.

- Edward Said

To speak of any sort of “school” of coastal California poetry is entirely oxymoronic. Aside from being totally ridiculous, such a phenomenon is impossible manage to truly define. While there’s little point in waging such argument, surely if ever there is poetry of recent years composed from out the language and daily life of California’s beaches, and coastal cities, which manages not be clichéd, or otherwise gutted of any literary merit, it is the poems of Lewis MacAdams and Kevin Opstedal. Their work is all the more remarkable for standing with, yet also apart from various subcultures and communities it manages embody the ebb and flow of idiomatic speech patterns of. These two poets are very much of “the streets” but never consumed by them—unlike say much of Southern California’s Bukowski-damaged poetry in general and the post-Beat phenomenon found in San Francisco’s North Beach and Mission district. The work is ever-evolving, journeying beyond initial corridors—successfully exploring territories of its full range.

There’s much to be admired in this poetry, however, beyond its being merely California-esque in nature. MacAdams and Opstedal are poets who at this point in their respective years have been committed to poetry for more than half their lives. When they speak or walk down the street the world is literally experienced via poetry: actions, loves, and abuses are both contained by, and developed out of, materials which have been worked over again and again via “the poems” constantly at work in their thoughts. Running through their veins is the passion to write their way through the arc of living. Such passion is a timeless phenomenon of the human condition evident from the ancient poets of China and Persia passed on into the Western tradition via Homer and Dante on up to the earliest English poetry of Wyatt and Chaucer forward to today. Wyatt and Chaucer lived several hundred years ago yet that’s no sort of hindrance to identifying one’s influences and peers when you’re standing with poetry in your arms and giving voice to the rhythms which flow from out the center of existence/non-existence—whatever that may be. There are no answers embedded in these poems but there is lasting testament given to the individual struggles of these poets to extract sniffs of emergent meaning from without the larger mess of living.  

Born in Venice, CA and a long-time resident of Santa Cruz, CA, Opstedal has never lived far from the crashing roar of the Pacific Ocean. Again and again, the ocean itself is thoroughly prevalent in the poems as muse, taskmaster, and as ultimate eternal, unknowable infinite Sage. As the younger poet of the two, Opstedal is clearly beholden to MacAdams’ work, but his literary acumen shouldn’t be short-changed for being merely imitative. He’s guided himself through years of reading through The Record, writing and re-writing on an avid search for the limitless wonder of having “the poems” reveal themselves. Over the course of many years Opstedal has been a supportive ally to MacAdams’ work as he has likewise gained know-how on poetry and living in return. In his introduction to Dear Oxygen, Opstedal comments how “the man, the poet, and the poetry are so intricately woven together” that (echoing a blurb by Michael McClure) “the rhythms that hold Lewis MacAdams together are all right there, driving the poems that shimmer across the pages.” Reading these poems is like looking towards eternity and leaving the lights on as you fade out upon a timeless zoning in: it’s exactly where you want to be.

Born in Texas, MacAdams spent much of his formative years as an apprentice-poet on the East Coast, studying at Princeton, as well as the poetry communities of the East Village in NYC, and SUNY Buffalo during the “Olson years” in the late 1960s. Throughout the 70s he lived in Bolinas, CA town of poets, artists, beach bums, and wild dogs (see Opstedal’s extensive history: Into the 80s and 90s up to the present he has spent much of his life in the Los Angeles area and dedicated much of his energy and time to working for the liberation of the Los Angeles River from the concrete straight jacket into which the Southern Californian mind-set of “civilization” has diverted it (see his ongoing book-length poem “The River” included in Dear Oxygen). Water is elemental to his life and work, much as it is for Opstedal, making it impossible to imagine either poet as being anything other than of the ocean—the name in fact of one of MacAdams’ sons.

A natural flow of language compels MacAdams’ poetry, much as it does Opstedal’s, shaping smoothly rhythmic rotundas of gleaming massy sheen. The natural world as witnessed offers its own lessons in living to these poets.


A sense of time passing, of long beach shadows.
            The lifeguards bringing in the beach umbrellas
            pass a pair of running shoes
            with nobody in them. I miss you
            whisper the rubber tires of the golf carts swerving away
                        from the 17th tee.

            Proud, tanned bodies and comfortable sagging bodies
            wrangle over Yahtzee. It’s your birthday today.
            I miss you whisper the trade winds in the feathery palms.
            I dreamt last night you were in Reza Abdoh piece
            and your body was painted with dark shadows
            that came off on me when we held each other.
            We talk about you as if you were not here, but you are.

“King of Sighs” the title of this MacAdams’ poem says it all. MacAdams is a straight-up, all out, pedal to the medal lover. Among the constants in his poetry is his alternating reverence for either the current love in his life, or his heartache and accompanying search for meaning within the loss of it. As here in “King of Sighs” he continues a few lines further on to attempt set his mind at ease in the distraction of blissful Buddhist images as he takes in the beach setting around him full of remorse and sorrow for his lost lover who he can’t get out of his thoughts. Everybody’s been there, as the saying goes.

Is that his real nose?
            Are those his real clothes?
            I eat a purple star flower
            in the upturned palm of a 7th Century Buddha
            to disengage the fly-wheel that sets my mind to worrying
            about you again, wondering if you’ve even left
            a forwarding address.

            If I could pick up the phone and call
            you I would; but you’re not home,
            and the waves keep moving in and in and in.
            I half expect you to come floating in on the outrigger canoe
            that the spirits who haunt these waters ride.

            That’s part of why I’m standing barefoot
            in the shadow of the Bo-Tree, studying the Buddha’s rounded
            granite shoulders worn white by the weather and the birds
            for a clue. Is it in the soft lower belly, the breath of life?
            Is it in the flame shooting
            from the top of Buddha’s head? Is it in
            the tear dropping from his third eye?


Opstedal matches MacAdams’ blurry-eyed heart rocked busted blues, poem for poem. Having gone to the mat for romance, each poet knows too well the price of committed love. Each has taken chances and fallen by mistaken ends to wind up at times alone in life, but each has also eventually found another heart as grounded as their own. In “Repeating My Heart” Opstedal recounts some of the darker sojourns endured.


Lost was when she drifted in
            & stole yr socks & nothing
            was left but the chrome

            hubcap she wore like a halo
            all the way from Reno to
            Redondo singing the same tune

            but changing the words—
            I never knew exactly where
            she was headed she never

            did much talking & that was
            fine by me I never did much
            listening & the road leapt out

            before us into the night


Whether the recounted episodes from this poem are collaged from multiple past relationships or a mixture of real and imagined cases of lost love, Opstedal has found himself meeting many dead-ends in his search for a long-lasting relationship not fueled by destruction.


I drove from Seattle
            held up at Coos Bay, Oregon
            for a couple of nights
            with a fist of H & a woman whose
            name I never really knew

            She mainlined, I hit the muscle
            & we both drank coca-cola & watched TV

            She told me what I meant

            Beside the ethnic issues
            we made it to San Francisco where she
            evaporated in the neon
            & I kept going
            holding close to the coast
            the waves keeping me honest
            & the road
            a first kiss
            stretching out to the vanishing point
            I could never quite reach


The gliding ease at work within these poems composes itself as it goes. Working towards an ever honest result, not always balanced or necessarily fair—but honest. As poet Michael Price says it in his Introduction to Opstedal’s book, “Never apologize, never explain. And of course, just do the work.” Once you get far enough along in poetry world, things start to take care of themselves, in so far as any sense of direction goes: the work guides you.

In his poems, MacAdams does not back away from squaring up with destructive forces. After all, acting as balancing forces, chaos and anarchy are as natural as order and discipline. He knows it. He’s worked as hard trying to hold together ridiculous bureaucratic boards and governing bodies in order to save natural water systems both in Bolinas and Los Angeles that he’s not about to offer anything less than a realistic view of what’s to come when politicians and powerful interests lead his country awry.   


            The bombs

                                    that fall

                                                            on Baghdad
                        will land

                                                on Los Angeles.


                        It doesn’t take a paranoid schizophrenic

                                    to understand that.




The reality that there’s a larger world which is increasingly at risk is never far from the minds and thus the work of these poets. The necessity to stay alert, to always watch the watchers, is mislaid at the risk of being swept up with the rest of the zombie populate. Opstedal drops reminders of this throughout his work.


            1. That rogue sunset has got your number
            2. and
            3. don’t ever give your real name.

                            (“Reef Dance”)


California Redemption Value gathers together work dating back to the 1990s, from Opstedal’s earliest published poems on up to among his latest. He shows no sign of stopping. He continues posting poems weekly, if not daily, on Ukulele Feedback ( and his small press Blue Books regularly prints chapbooks and the occasional one-shot magazine representing a broad range of writers. In short, he’s not going anywhere and his commitment to the practiced discipline of “the poems” is constant as ever. This collection holds its ground as a defining marker of where he’s been, where he’s at, and where he’s headed. The surf never comes to end, just keeps on cycling through our myth-memory. Opstedal’s hands are as sandy and salt encrusted as can be.

Dear Oxygen is literally the representation of a lifetime’s ongoing work. MacAdams, like too many poets, often slips the radar of today’s poetry audiences. Nevertheless the breadth and skill of his poetry has been there from the beginning and never has left. People will say, “Well you can’t read everybody and everything, Patrick.” And that’s true, you read where your interest lies, where chance directs you. Poetry is a relationship and as is the case with all relationships insisting it happens this way or that doesn’t do any good. You won’t find true love knocking at your door but maybe it’s sitting next door wondering where you’ve been all this time—or maybe not: true love actually doesn’t give a fuck about you. These poems are just like that. 

Dear Oxygen: new & selected poems, 1966-2011
Lewis Macadams
UNO Press

ISBN-13: 978-1608010592

California Redemption Value
Kevin Opstedal
UNO Press
ISBN-13: 978-1608010660



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