A Review by James H Duncan
One of my favorite poems has always been “Nirvana,” by Charles Bukowski—the tale of a young man traveling by bus who discovers a café that fills his eyes and heart with a magical comfort otherwise devoid from his down-and-out life. Rather than staying, as his soul tells him to do, the young man climbs aboard the bus and tries not to think about what waits for him down the road. For me, the men and women in Jeffrey Alfier’s poetry walk the same dusty roads and populate the same cafes and bars, but their youth is a gift long spent, and any sense of magic and hope is far behind them...yet not forgotten.
Before the Troubadour Exits is beautiful for its haunting awareness of what was and what may never be again, a rich portrait of yearning painted against a dry and broken canvas. The first two lines of the first poem pull no punches: “The wind comes vagrant from New Mexico/Nothing’s as recent as your ancient past.” Right away, the reader knows damn well what they’re in for—stark, honest reflections that still hurt, and that keep those characters on the move. The poems remind us that our own personal histories serve well as cages, friends, scars, and saviors.
But the southwest stories of drinking, women, and neon lights don’t reek of Bukowski or Fante imitations like far too many “bar” poets do. Alfier’s poems are unique for their grace mixed with grit, and he pays careful attention to place the reader in a world lush with detail. Alfier has been there, has seen every inch of these dark bars and highways, and he isn’t trying to impress you. The worlds in these poems are full of characters that don’t give a damn whether you are there or not because there is too much weight bearing down on them to notice. They have dreams that are slipping away, and they have to hustle for every mile, every buck, and every fleeting moment of love that they can get in their wind-torn lives.
But here’s the catch: you are in these poems. This isn’t fiction, but a reflection of a million unseen fates barreling down upon us like an eighteen-wheeler out of control. As he says in his poem “A Study in South Tucson,” “Jail is not the only type of hard time.” Alfier’s poems may serve as cautionary tales and reminders for us to savor good luck and good love, but should those good times pass and if I find myself sitting in the same worn out cafes found in his chapbook, at least I know I’ll be in good company. Jeffrey Alfier’s Before the Troubadour Exits was a pleasure to read, and it will stay in my traveling rucksack for a very long time.