Desert Music: A Review of Jeffrey Alfier’s Fugue for a Desert Mountain

Jeffrey Alfier’s latest collection of poetry, Fugue for a Desert Mountain, takes the reader on a meditative, almost monastic, journey through the American Southwest—down Route 66 and its tributaries of highways and byways that snake through places like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and then just near the border into Mexico, where “Above the windbreak of a steep-walled / ravine, the castaway jacket of a border / crosser is arbored on mesquite thorns.”

However, Alfier’s trained photographic eye goes beyond the obvious “buttes,” “switchbacks,” “cutbanks,” and “chaparral” that most readers might associate with this region. Instead, Alfier takes his reader to the darker places, ones that likely never appeared in an Ansel Adams photograph. For example, in “A Map of Vaughn, New Mexico,” the poet travels to the,

          […]          Bel-Air Motel [where] [t]he clerk said the “No”
          in front of “Vacancy” has never been lit. Cigarette stains
          on ageless Formica. Furtive occupants. I sprawl
          on the bed and share the vacancy. The headboard

          in the next room thumps behind me.
          I hear a car pull up. Doors open and slam.
          A child’s voice asks if this is where they live now.

In this poem, with its darkly humorous observations that turn—with the fierce quickness of a diamondback rattler hiding in the lee of shade cast from a desert rock—to the hauntingly tragic, the reader is reminded of the hovels the poet Charles Bukowski often frequented and wrote about. But like Bukowski, Alfier is able to use that dark humor to get at what Ezra Pound called the “luminous details.” Here’s another example, taken from “Valediction for a Reno Motel,” where

          bedsheets [are] soaked in Febreze, to save
          on laundering from the midday
          romances of fleeting strangers.

The reader not only sees, but here can smell this place, in all its vile, sickening beauty. Alfier continues:

          […]                              Oh Lord,
          let me spare them – warn of “continental
          breakfasts” unfit for dogs, of flicking
          light switches to catch sight
          of something fleeing like a thief under
          the bed, the bathrooms someone must’ve
          died in to leave such depth of stains,
          of the need to wash in the electric cold of rusty
          tap water. […]

And even in this final plea, with which the poet seems to want to spare any future guests (or even his readers) the discomfort of staying at this place, there is nothing didactic about any of these poems, no need for the poet to proselytize—unless, of course, it is to spread the good word about the beauty of language and landscape, what otherwise might go unseen as one speeds past in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, concerned only with their destination. But Alfier compels the reader to stop, pull off to the shoulder, take a look around with him.

It is also worth noting here the musicality of Alfier’s lines, the careful mixture of long and short bursts of language. This sort of cadence certainly suggests the fugue-like rhythm of point and counter-point that one might hear in a Bach composition. But like Bach’s work, these poems also contain a sense of tight control with their carefully-chosen line breaks that move the reader from one image to the next, like flipping through a series of photographs. Likewise, almost every stanza in these poems is linearly-balanced as well, much like the movements in a musical composition. Surely, Alfier’s precise attention to the form each of his poems takes seems to suggest the poet’s mastery over his subject matter as well.

Finally, in one last example of one of these Bukowski-esque poems (“To the Barmaid at St. Elmo’s I Quit a Promise to Repent”)—which, it should be noted, are all satisfyingly sprinkled throughout the collection like “stars [that] cluster above us – / all those gods and beasts, hunters and heroes, / spinning outward from themselves in the dark”—Alfier laments:

          Because she knows the truth about men like me,
          how we must keep our sins alive. Truckers

          from Mojave, ranchers from Marana, roustabouts
          far away as Midland. We want our errors intact,

          unforsaken, the way a heretic hides an amulet,
          a husband a phone number in a woman’s script.

          The hell with fearless. I love best when an absinthe
          spoon hollows my resistance, leaves a verdant

          bruise I take with me to any motel this side
          of the border. Listen: I’m kindest to myself

          when I’m such damaged goods they can’t be given
          away. […]

This example, structured in couplets, is also suggestive of the contrapuntal texture of a musical fugue, masterfully plucked away on a harpsichord. This sort of structural awareness speaks to Alfier’s cognizance of his work’s innate musicality, those breaths of language, languorously inhaled and exhaled as one might breathe upon waking from a long, satisfying sleep.

The aforementioned examples are the strongest, most gratifying poems in the collection, the ones in which Alfier goes beyond the obvious iconic landscapes of the American Southwest, the ones in which he notices, for example, a scene at a convenience store, “[d]own 66, [a] Chevron Food Mart, [where] teenage / girls brush past me in a brief parade of cheap / perfume, a cloying hint of low-grade weed.” It is in moments such as these that Alfier is able to consistently surprise and invigorate his reader, show us something new (to allude to Pound again) of this oft-explored territory.

So take a road trip with Fugue for a Desert Mountain. Travel down the lonely stretches of highway and into the dingy motels that line the desolate roadside, where the “maids and clerks / ask where you call home, what brought / you this far from where you really live.” I’m pretty sure Alfier might just have the answer.
David Armand teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature. In 2010, his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, was published by Texas Review Press after being named the winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize. He has since published two more novels, a collection of poetry, and a memoir. David is currently working on his sixth book, The Lord’s Acre, as well as a second memoir.