Victor Altshul
Author photo: Laura Altshul
Joyful and anguished, witty and lyrical, passionate and philosophical, Victor Altshul’s Singing with Starlings is a romp, a descent into the Abyss, a flight into song, an outcry against the willful ways of the world, and a lover’s shout-out. Always, these poems have the utter honesty of one who knows by heart the depths and dancings of the human spirit. Barry Zaret writes, “These poems are constructed with a poet’s heart and a psychiatrist’s mind, hammered on the anvil of joy, exultation, trauma and grief. They draw on lifelong personal experience and love of art, literature, poetry and music. Once begun, Singing with Starlings is hard to discontinue until the end is reached, so intense and pleasurable is the immersion.” And this from Charles Douthat: “Anyone who’s spent much time on a therapist’s couch has wondered what the mostly silent therapist is really thinking. In his second book of poems, Victor Altshul, a practicing psychiatrist for nearly fifty years, breaks the silence and allows us access to his own heart. Singing with Starlings is a book of strong, witty, tender poems. Altshul writes movingly of his own childhood, of family life, of time’s passing, of love and love lost. There is a deep, wisdom-building pleasure in these poems and in what they reveal of one life’s sunlight and ‘what it bathed—the loneliness, the longing, fright and pain'."
"Starling in a Tree" courtesy of Getty Images

Victor Altshul is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and has authored a number of papers and book chapters in his field. As a runner, he is the veteran of twenty marathons; and as a rower, of twenty Head of the Charles Regattas. He is also an opera singer, having sung the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème, and of the Bonze in Madama Butterfly. His previous book of poetry, Stumblings, was published in 2013. He and his wife, Laura, have seven children between them and even more grandchildren who, “while quite marvelous, are too numerous to count.” The Altshuls live in New Haven, Connecticut.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-83-2

Copyright © 2015 by Victor Altshul

6" x 9" paperback, 64 pages
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copyright © 2015 by Victor Altshul


Early Rehearsals

I learned about it in seventh grade.
If you breathe fast and deep many times,
hold your breath and strain hard,
you can make yourself faint.
After a few seconds you wake up.
You need to have a friend to catch you
so you don’t hurt yourself when you fall.
When you wake up, your brain buzzes
for a second, and then you’re fine.

After school one day
Bobby and I did that in my backyard.
Over and over.

After a while it got boring,
so we went inside and made chocolate milk.



In tribute to Robert J. Lifton

For my book
I needed to ask him those questions
with the coldest objectivity

about how they wolfed down all that schnitzel
and rotkohl and kartoffeln and spaetzele
and sang songs with their pretty blond wives
and danced with their pretty blond daughters

merrily after shooting my grandfather
and shoving my grandmother into the chamber
and listening to her screams
grow fainter and fainter,

of course with the coldest objectivity –
and as I pulled out my pen to record his answers,
imagine my surprise to discover
the pen was a knife,

sharper and longer than I’d have imagined,
for just when he began to speak,
I made the cut with surprising ease,
from sternal notch to pubic symphysis,

bisecting the septum of his heart, diaphragm
and the full length of abdominal aorta.
Hair gleaming blond, muscles still rippling,
just before his blue eyes grayed and sank

into opacity, he spoke his first and last
and spoke no more:
Mein Gott, mein Gott,
warum hast du mich verlassen?



My spear dislodged the rotund knight.
His horse pranced to the side.
The helmet rolled two turns.

His hair was cropped. He blinked.
A frightened half-smile exposed
the gaps between his teeth.

Forbearing and generous,
I carved a modest, though jagged
laceration in his exposed belly.

You think the fellow had done something
really frightful to set me on him like that?
Not at all – he’d just published a very silly book.

I turned away before the bleeding stopped.
I do not like the sight of blood,
so I make funny noises in my sleep.

Though centuries have passed,
he still bleeds; the pain quite lays him out.
I know I have to make it up to him.

I make a promise I will read his new book
on the joys of meditation and mindfulness
and all known forms of human happiness.

I do, and understand why I poked
him off his horse and slit his chubby belly.
He had it coming.

Climate Change

In tattered, stained bathrobes
they crowd outside the entrance,
where stale smoke wafts twenty yards
down the grassy knoll I climb
when I come to do my rounds.

From their wizened faces I can see
that these men fought in France, in Germany,
in the Pacific – they were the Greatest Generation,
men who cannot bear to speak of greatness,
men benumbed and silenced by ancient horror.

Some sit stooped in wheelchairs; others
slump on benches, a hand on their walkers.
None stand, none smile, none speak, all smoke,

some through their tracheostomies
living hand to neck.

She Lying in Bed

reading the Sunday Times,
I next to her typing this poem,
as we, grown old, half clothed,
(well, not quite half) await.

Could they be toying with us,
mocking our pleasant vices?
Barely turning, I reach out.

Get lost, mean sprites
plotting tumescence’s demise.
The pills still work.
Blood flow, you know.

Auditioning for Bohème at Eighty

Some say that being old can be a bore:
joints creak, bones groan, throats croak;
yet richer tones, soaring from my shower floor,
startle fledgling starlings high in the oak,
a piping chorus I hear crying, “Encore!”

I push my rusting baritone high,
and higher still – I can be the guy
who gets the girl! I hit an A, and then B-flat,
then out comes “Che gelida manina,” just like that,
a dashing tenor filling up the sky!

Absurd to hope that from that sky will come
an answering call – in fact the trees grow quiet
at my screech – a turn-off, I can’t deny it.
A baritone should stay put and not assume
a bird will want to flush him from his home.

But wait! Is that a starling’s call I hear?
She’s singing – God! “Mi chiamano Mimi!”
Soprano pure and tender – I can see
her floating toward me through the morning’s glare.
I feel it, darling! Love is in the air!


Look on Vivaldi, mortified, morose,
with nothing on the wing!
You master mixer of insipid tonics,
forgive me while I turn away from you

to watch Arcangelo Corelli blowing glass
in a modest flat in the Trastevere.
Let me see him as he fashions herons.
Let me see them spread their graceful wings

soundlessly, tilting to avoid the casements;
soaring seaward, transparencies
unnoticed by Tyrrhenian fishermen,
and flying all the way to the Andaman,

they proffer wing tips to underwater nymphs
whose toes do not quite touch the coral hues
and siphon them up into their wings and breasts

now transfigured,
invisible no longer, yet silicate still. Regard
their pride of bearing, beaks aloft,

as with flying colors they waft back.
Modestly these archangels soar, absorbing
pastel hues that do not fade, rare wings
limbering slowly, never breaking,

quite upstaging you, Vivaldi. But take heart:
the many who love you always will insist
that no one charms the seasons quite like you.

An Old Man Conquers His Fear of Death

Darkening from exposure through the night,
a slice of avocado stains the Camembert,
the slightest brown discoloring where
I place my teeth to take a modest bite.

As if from a console radio and gramophone
installed in my father’s den when I was eight,
I hear a woman’s creamy voice intone,
“Do you know what happens at night
to people who eat Camembert (I do!)
befouled by specks of darkened avocado?”

Right away the pounding takes its toll;
a nasty man inside me cracks my ribs,
shredding stomach, boring through my skull –
I can almost hear his snickering gibes.
I imagine I can see him, green and mean –
I have a hunch his name is Peter Pain.
Sneering as he drives his chisel home,
muttering foul oaths I cringe to hear,
he makes me shriek and yell and howl and groan,
and I am sure that I will die of fear,

when suddenly, from the ancient console,
comes another honeyed voice, now male,
saying, “Ah, yes, there’s good news tonight:
General Patton’s Third Army has crossed the Rhine;
Berlin will fall in days.” In sudden brilliant light
Patton himself appears. He swaggers up to Pain
and shouts, “Why, you’re a coward – no more drivel!”
and slaps him silly until he falls to the ground,
and as the demon writhes, he seems to shrivel,
while his skin darkens to a shade of brown.
Patton winks at me as he climbs into his jeep,
as if to say, “We fixed the little creep!”

I come to slowly, swaying on my feet;
but knowing that my heart will keep its beat
and knowing that my lungs will keep their breath,
I sneer at all green messengers of death;
and I shall choose the cheeses that I eat,
and I shall say what veggies go with each.

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