Searching for the Northern Lights by Laura Altshul

picture of Laura Altshul

Photo by Kathleen Cei



Honest, concise, witty, and heart-felt, the poems in Laura Altshul’s first book, Searching for the Northern Lights, are as intelligent as they are humane. They move from delight through loss and grief, arriving in the end at a lovely raison d’être. Barry L. Zaret writes, “In this wonderful collection of poems, Laura Altshul has explored the emotional fabric of her life from Brooklyn roots to the present without reservation or fear. The reader is given the opportunity to share in her joy, sorrow, pain, love and anger. We take part in the poet’s heightened perception of the environment as she traverses trails on daily runs. We’re allowed glimpses into her sorrow and empathy concerning the Holocaust. This is a highly readable and meaningful collection of poems. Although I have had the opportunity to hear several of these poems read over the past year, encountering the breadth and depth of Laura Altshul’s recent body of work has provided me with an entirely new and exciting experience. As I read this volume, I felt my own emotions resonating with those of the poet. Isn’t that what all of us who write poetry hope our readers will experience? And this from Christine Beck: “ ‘Searching for the Northern Lights,’ the title poem in this collection by Laura Altshul, embodies the tone of these poems ranging from childhood in Brooklyn through a long and difficult marriage to an even longer, much happier one. In the poem, the narrator does not find the Northern Lights. Shivering, she meditates upon the ‘wispiness of dream.’ Whether contemplating her last visit with her father, or his habit of bringing her stamps long after she’d outgrown the collecting passion, Laura Altshul is unflinching in her view of family in all its joys and challenges. We sense her restraint and admire the poems for it. In ‘Inheritance,’ an homage to her independent mother, Altshul claims her legacy as a woman of vision and tenderness. This collection resonates with love, empathy and humanity. In ‘Redemption,’ about a friend’s obsession with collecting bottles for return, Altshul ends with this: ‘large volume, small return.’ Searching for the Northern Lights is just the opposite: ‘small volume, large return.’
  Searching for the Northern LightsPoems by Laura Altshul cover image
  Front cover photograph (“Aurora Reflection”) by Larry Gerbrandt

Laura Altshul taught for years at many levels including college and kindergarten. She never attended kindergarten herself, went straight to first and missed all the fun; kindergarten remains her favorite grade. She has written stories and essays as well as poems; her poem “Last Visit” won first prize in the Al Savard Memorial Poetry Contest of the Connecticut Poetry Society in 2014. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut with her husband; together they have seven children and ten grandchildren. Searching for the Northern Lights is her first poetry collection.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-89-4

Copyright © 2015 by Laura Altshul

6" x 9" paperback, 72 pages


Copyright ©2015 by Laura Altshul


His key glides on a green ribbon
pocketed in a navy backpack.
He prizes it out on the bus ride home,
rushes up the steps to unlock the door.
Hers is on a chain with charms
zippered into her purple purse.
She waits until
he opens the door for her.

Alone together in the house,
their refuge, their cell –
two siblings at truce from rivalry.
They must answer the phone
but not the bell.

Allies at war with the world,
not yet with each other.

Stuck Together

When I turned thirteen,
I renounced my stamp collection
as tedious, infantile
after years spent amassing the
brightly colored emblems of arcane places
and keeping them separate,
pristine in their glassine closures.

I had them from the forties and fifties:
presidents, overrun countries, faces and flags
featured in shelved albums.

Long after I lost interest
my father kept bringing them home
each time a new issue appeared.
I shrugged.

He showed them to me, then didn’t,
just crammed them into envelopes
I didn’t see.

Now, decades after his death
I find them, remnants of former times
stuck together, adhering in layers
wadded beneath my fingers,
brilliant remainders tugging at me
the way they never could
those years when I tore myself from him.

Half Brother

for Lindsey Altshul (11.24.59 – 5.21.12)

You lived in another state.

You’d come late, don an apron and carve the turkey,
elegantly blanketing the pieces with moist towels
and you’d rinse dishes with care, shutting off the water
between each one.

You’d go out back for a smoke after the pies.
The smell lingered in your soft brown beard
as you hugged goodbye and disappeared
for another year.

We were never sure that you’d come.

And then it happened you didn’t –
drowned in the ocean, your clothed body beached.

Your friends said you’d gone
for a swim after a night at work –
you often did, even in winter.

To us it was a different story, and yet
surrounded by people from that other state –
so many people we didn’t know
save our few relatives
in a church for your service with
jazz and beer and origami birds,
where was the truth and who could tell it?

The next year we poured the beer named to honor
your expertise in spirits, toasted you.

So many at the table, new babies too,
yet we kept looking.

At the Blue Lagoon Iceland Spa

Lined up, plastic bracelet on wrist,
handed a towel and robe
we move toward the lockers,
strip and shuffle on, waiting to submerge our
raw freezing skin
in the geothermal sea waters.

Yet why in this place of comfort,
the steam of its showers pluming,
do I conjure
that black mustachioed Fuhrer
who would round up his countrymen
and herd them naked off to the gas...

Searching for the Northern Lights

Standing in this black Icelandic cold
on the desiccated deforested ground,
we shiver and stare and stamp,
huddled like stocky native horses.

We strain skywards, searching, waiting,
hoping for a glorious panoply of colors.
A smoky white streak appears, grows,

and slowly dissolves. We retreat
to heated vehicle defeated by the
icy wind, our chattering teeth and
the wispiness of the dream.

Pickling Party: Her Nana’s Recipe

for Christine Bennett

All summer she’s worked
after planting the seeds in mounded earth,
watering early and late in the day,
the soil gulping water thirstily and
under her steady ministrations
the cukes tumescing in the hot sun,
their skin bumpy and tender.
She has severed each from its vine,
snugged them together in wicker baskets.

Now, in the steamy fragrant kitchen
the cauldrons await:
vinegar, sugar, salt, spices, onions bubble.

First the ritual rinse
to wash away August’s dust.
The vegetal emerald gleams.

Friends wield their favorite knives.
Hair-netted, bandanna-ed, or head-capped,
feet encased in clogs, sneakers, or hiking boots
the women laugh, shimmy, stomp, sing to rock music,
but their eyes and hands are fierce
as they cut, slicing even chips:
too thick and not enough flavor permeates,
too thin and not enough bite and crunch.

Light green flesh
cossets seeds which will not flower,
lying instead in sparkling glass jars
bathed in the syrup spicing their innards.
Her nana’s recipe – preserved in these perfect pickles.

For her friends it’s just a one-night stand,
no planting, weeding, watering, plucking
to consume the days and muscles,
dry the skin, the eyes, the organs of desire.

She dreams of sleep, never enough,
but won’t abandon her summer homage.

Cherry Blossom Festival at Wooster Square

Some years when it’s festival time
the trees are done with their show,
petals littering the streets
trampled to browning bits
or blowing about in the breeze.

This year’s spring was cold
and the trees withheld their blooms
tightly curled up against the chill,
hiding their beauty like bundled up
modest maidens tightly wrapped
in shawls and drawn capes
loath to reveal themselves
lest they inspire lust
or worse, like Helen, war,
while folks beneath bore
winter jackets, scarves and woolen caps.

But into their midst two harbingers
pranced onto the square: bare-legged
runners flashing calves and thighs
and muscled chests,
raising their fists to the trees.

Mating Dance

Male birds work hard
to attract their mates;
some call, some spread their wings,
some dance on their toes.
Flamingos flip their heads
back and forth on long necks and
take mincing steps en masse.
The ruby throated hummingbird whizzes
brightly up and down, stops and circles –
his thousand heartbeats before her.

It’s spring and my husband, just past 80,
prances into our bedroom, arms
outstretched, singing Che gelida manina,
baring his chest and preening before me.
He twirls, swirls, glides beside
the bed.

I enjoy the display
too much to say
I’m already convinced.


I relish grapes’ juicy youthiness,
the crisp burst of taut skin to pungent pulp,
but raisins, dried and wrinkled, fill my shelves
for my husband eats them by the fistful.

They’re good for you – concentrated iron.
After giving blood, you get them in a little box,
the kind put in a child’s lunch.

I buy them in round canisters,
munitions piling up in my cart,
for raisins complete his every meal.
Coming home from an elegant restaurant dinner
even with dessert he’ll still go for the raisins.

But they escape through his fingers
onto the kitchen floor, the carpeted stairs,
the hallway, even the bathroom tiles.
Squashed raisins underfoot stick.

Flattened they adhere, resist removal,
those last bit reminders of
his presence, Hansel’s trail.

I sigh, I scrub, I scrape, I moan, I fret.
But I have seen my own wrinkled skin
aged yet still preferred by him
and am oh so grateful
for a home without raisins for me
would be a place with no raison d’etre.

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