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Book review: The Wolf Yearling by Jeffrey Alfier

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The term “writer’s writer,” or, in this case, “poet’s poet,” is very unusual in that it seems to have no clear definition, yet every writer knows what it means. For me, a poet’s poet is a workhorse, someone who, focusing on craft, consistently creates the kind of high-level work of art other poets truly admire. Unfortunately, however, despite this effort and discipline, despite this consistent outpouring of strong work, the poet’s poet is typically a label for the unappreciated and relatively obscure writer who deserves far more attention from readers.

That’s why I wanted to review The Wolf Yearling by poet’s poets, Jeffrey Alfier, a local Los Angeles poet, photographer and literary journal editor. I believe, in a better world, this artist, with his accomplished work and vast potential, would be a darling of the literary world – or would at least own a much much bigger corner of it.

Jeffrey Alfier
Poetry Collection
The Wolf Yearling
Silver Birch Press, May 2013
82 pages/$12.00

Talk about a workhorse. Already a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jeffrey Alfier’s poetry and photographs consistently appear on the pages and covers of literary magazines and journals all across the country. The Wolf Yearling is his first collection of 65 of these published poems. With his photographer’s keen eye and a strong artistic sensibility, Alfier mixes grand images of nature’s bounty with sober depictions of the lonely and forgotten locations and inhabitants of the American Southwest. What’s most interesting to me about this collection is how, like a photographer’s lens, the poet seems only to capture images as they are in nature, without judgment or criticism. Somehow, even when the poet does reveal the “vulgar charm of exhausted huntsmen,” how the “ocotillo blossoms when it pleases” or how in the Puerto Blanco Mountains “rock cairns are the oldest profession in the book,” this is not commentary or gossip. It’s the truth. And, more importantly, it’s evidence of beauty.

If you could only read one poem in this work, one work that would best represent the collection as a whole, I’d urge you to read “The Desert Rancher on Sunday.” In only five couplets – one sublime snapshot – the poet manages to hit on both of his favorite subjects at once: 1) Some forgotten desert ranch somewhere in the Southwest whose “parched tractor ruts…angle off into wind-runneled fields”; and 2) The local inhabitants, lively flora and fauna, “loitering hawks,” “Chihuahuan sage blossoming in clusters,” and a single warbler whose flight is impelled by the footsteps of a nameless, faceless (and, perhaps, timeless) rancher. Touched off by the wind, the poem’s action is but a reaction to man, reinforced by “distant church bells” that “summon their own echoes” as the rancher kneels down, shoves his hands into the earth and we learn that this

Thin soil keeps him for another season,
The ground made of nothing his hands won’t hold.

If you like this poem, you’re really going to enjoy the rest of this journey through the Southwest, “all those towns…that were never ours.” Like Terlingua, Texas, “where a man could once die…in three languages.” And south Tuscon, Arizona where “jail is not the only type of hard time.” Or towns north of Lazaro, Mexico where “mesquite fences stretch like saurian spines/ across fields overrun by buffel grass.” Or the Santa Cruz Valley, where “hawks are connoisseurs” of death. And where attractions like the Devil’s Punchbowl in Los Angeles lie “between fault lines named for saints” and a volcanic field is also "heir to the throne of vanished sabertooths." Or the Sierra Madre mining belt where “few can ditch the trap of a mining town job -/ a rock rolled uphill forever from hell.”

You’ll witness the first snow in the Santa Catalinas, and nightfall on the Bajada where “men breach canyons that throw back their voices.” You’ll discover “horse-mounted vaqueros” in Arivaca, and an evangelist at the Brazos River. You’ll meet a sundog rancher who died four days shy of turning 50; a cook and rumored fugitive who is paid under the table; the seasonal worker in Dome Valley who “sleeps there like Caliban under his cloak.” You’ll suffer with a family whose foreclosed farm will be auctioned off in the morning, rain or shine, because “for auctioneers, no weather is too grim”. You’ll see backpackers, a parolee, a widow, a farmer’s daughter – not to mention this land’s real owners: the desert elk, the coyote, the jaguar, the white-throated swift and the wolf yearling, to name just a few.

Bottom line: The Wolf Yearling is a celebration of life, beautiful and moving, and yet brutally unforgiving, by a local "artist's artist" who deserves much more attention.

About the author
Jeffrey Alfier holds an MA in Humanities from California State University at Dominguez Hills. He is an Air Force veteran with 27 years of officer and enlisted service, and a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). He has also worked as a functional analyst with Science Applications International Corporation, and once taught history as an adjunct faculty member with City College of Chicago’s European Division. Mr. Alfier’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His first full-length book of poems is The Wolf Yearling (Silver Birch Press, 2013) and His second book of poems, Idyll for a Vanishing River, is published by Glass Lyre Press. http://www.sprreview.com

Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales (foreword by Carolyn See) and Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories. His latest book is an illustrated novella for adults called Different. Don't forget to subscribe to his emails and follow him on Twitter @Frankemundo or @LABooksExaminer for the latest updates.

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