Reviewed by Sheryl Luna
By Jeffrey C. Alfier
Silver Birch Press, 2013
The Wolf Yearling, Jeffrey C. Alfier’s first full-length book of poems, is a lush and lovely collection filled with linguistic play and careful attention to imagistic detail and musicality. Alfier’s poems are tight and controlled. This is a book of place and longing. The desert of West Texas and Arizona comes alive through vivid description. Similarly the people and their financial duress and ruggedness are explored. Relationships and landscapes are central. There are poems about the Sierras, Death Valley, the Chisos Mountains, Albuquerque, the Rio Bravo, the Brazos River, Waco, Texas and Austin. The lovely and lively language of this controlled collection leads to an exploration of inner and external landscapes and an examination of people who live in the Southwestern part of the United States.
The second poem in the collection offers us clarity and a lyrical narrative. In “My Great Aunt Speaks Nights In Hardin County,” the speaker goes back in history and shares the life of a Texas trapper’s wife. This woman is now elderly. Alfier utilizes sharp imagery and musical sounds to present a portrait of the aging woman.
She recalls those nights squinting through windows
waiting for his shadow to reemerge
soaked with rain and pelts—a feral hunter.
The last time I paid her a call, blindness
was slowly dimming her central vision.
Sometimes a stray voice makes her turn and look,
rain tapping glass like a startled stranger.
Alfier’s language is always taut and filled with precise imagery. These poems often have a musical sensitivity which makes them a pleasure to read. In the following poem titled “The Father Returning,” these qualities are present.
We reach the lakebed from a stretch of road
that threads the dry basin like a gray seam.
Our eyes hunt for storms tumbling above hills,
watch plovers flutter off alkali flats,
their brief flight regaining his native air.
The shorthand for it is memory loss,
ike the least tangible thing ever held.
But what came to him only made him wince,
the past’s unyielding flume of images:
who lived down the street before troop trains came,
names of friends lost in Rummell’s Africa.
We wanted him back, each thought honed and sheer,
thing faltering on a puzzled tongue,
and his laughs piercing dusk like nightingales,
each spark unmediated by a mind’s
relentless entangling of who and when,
to know us before his eyes lose our names
or the way a desert looks in the rain
fter dust devils churn birds into air.
Such lovely language, lyricism, and narrative fill this collection. Alfier has a knack for utilizing strong, surprising verbs in his imagistic flurries. This is evident in “The Desert Rancher On Sunday.”
Winds release clouds from the tread of drifting
that buoy the arcs of loitering hawks.
It’s so quiet he swears he hears sunlight,
Chihuahuan sage blossoming in clusters.
When his footfalls impel a warbler’s flight,
distant church bells summon their own echoes.
He kneels, presses palms to parched tractor ruts
that angle off into wind-runneled fields.
The sail keeps him for another season,
the ground made of nothing his hands won’t hold.
In “Mapping The Migrant’s Shrine,” a poem dedicated to a migrant named Sonia Alvarado Soriano (1982-2007) Alfier continues with playful word choices and his use of strong verbs with an underlying sense of musicality.
We swear they stand no chance facing this wind.
Who prospers here when heat conspires with stones
to gall votive candles down to slivers?
If Santa Barbara’s a saint defrocked
there’s patrons enough for any lost cause–
maybe St Jude will untangle roads north.
A new saint’s image, pinned to granite, flies
above a young girl’s photo. Loosed by wind,
she floats in the rain, the prowling future.
Early poems are set in Southwest Texas, as well as Arivaca, Arizona. Alfier’s gift lies in capturing these harsh landscapes in linguistic elegance. He finds and expresses beauty in the desert and its people. Some characters of the region written about include: a parolee, an alcoholic, a middle-aged waitress at a truck stop, a Union Pacific engineer, a migrant worker, seasonal workers and farmers. For instance, in “Overtaking the Union Pacific” the speaker looks closely at the landscape and people, as well as himself.
I watch its churning engine spit heat
at the sun, exhaust sheen nearly wet
against the foothills. Pecan groves
at Lobo fall behind us, leafless and alone.
Something draws the engineer and me
to want whatever’s south, as cottonwoods
must want their green to rinse our eyes.
Horizons sleepwander here, like steam
from the 2 a.m. coffee cup of a woman
gone now into the past tense. After her,
all love is a raincheck. For now, we cut
this valley—broad as the Mare Imbrium,
the engineer behind his thick blue glass
and all those towns, my unseen friend,
that were never ours. All those that were.
The desert comes alive in many of these poems where musicality and taut language bring forth succinct imagery. In “White Canyon” Alfier writes,
False indigo thrives by roads where my jeep
lumbers south over a drought-seared mesa.
The fragrance of piñon trees suffuses winds
that lift the frail bodies of canyon wrens
and those trudging, black, iridescent crows
that glimmer through dust motes gaining the light.
Nature is central in this collection in terms of place. Continually the stark desert is carefully described with tremendous detail. The lifestyle of the people in these small Southwestern towns is often celebrated. The harsh lives they lead are explored in poems such as “Blues Despite The Odds.” Images of the livelihood in these landscapes are carefully drawn.
Silenced cotton gins and screened in porches
line dusty arteries of hardpan roads
flayed into earth by frenzied hoof and tire.
Guitar riffs moan through the thick summer air
to breach the weather beaten windowsills
of the unpainted frame house my aunt owned,
buzzing beveled glass and dark, varnished wood.
She tells the photo of her dead husband
that fifes, fiddles, and drums are devil’s play.
Overall, The Wolf Yearling is a collection where wordplay, musicality, and brilliant imagery join together to paint a portrait of the Southwestern region of the United States. Desert imagery is often succinct, detailed and quite musical.
Wolf in pine trees photo courtesy Shutterstock.