Let the wind push us across poems by Jane Schapiro

picture of Victor Altshul
Photo by Laura Altshul.  

Victor Altshul’s Ode to My Autumn rings all the changes: from nostalgia to satire, from melancholy to joy, from the personal to the ekphrastic, from the traditional to the whimsical. It is as various and as fascinating as life itself. About the book, Clare Rossini has written, “Like all the best poetry, Victor Altshul’s Ode to My Autumn is written out of the poet’s sense of mortal urgency. Whether taking on the perspective of a ruminative blue heron, exploring the tragedy of a brother’s mental illness, or coming to terms with one of the many writers, artists, and musicians who serve as co-conspirators in his art-making, Altshul tracks his thought and emotion with an intensity and clarity that draw us in. The success of these poems is due in no small measure to Altshul’s adept control of his craft. This is a poet equally at home in free and formal verse (his villanelle is superb!), and the music of the poems is consistently convincing. Altshul’s voice has similar range, moving from tender compassion to incisive political commentary to rueful self-awareness; every key is played here.  And, yes, Altshul is also capable of being scintillatingly funny in his poems, a rare feat. But finally, it’s the felt sense of the life behind the work—one deeply considered and passionately owned—that makes it hard to put down Victor Altshul’s Ode to My Autumn.”
  ode to my autumn cover image
  Cover photograph by Cheryl Picard 

John Stanizzi adds this: “In his latest collection, Ode to My Autumn, Victor Altshul clearly, poignantly, and with great wisdom considers John Keats’ question Where are the songs of Spring?  And he answers that question with a collection of poems that blesses the reader with pure accessibility, the joy of splendidly made and welcomed connections, and enormous insight.  He brings to mind Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’ by reminding us that there was a time when we were all ‘young and easy,’ and by himself singing ‘in his chains like the sea.’  I am reminded too of Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’ – Victor Altshul shares with Frost the thought that ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’ Ode to My Autumn is a lovely and powerful collection. Open it, enjoy it, and as the author writes, ‘let unbidden dreams excite your mind.’

Victor Altshul is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale University School of Medicine and is on the faculty of the latter. His previous books of poetry, Stumblings and Singing with Starlings, were published in 2013 and 2015. He lives with his wife Laura, also a published poet, in New Haven.

Click here for sample poems. And here for a Foreword review of Ode to My Autumn.
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ISBN 978-1-943826-21-6

First Edition 2017

6" x 9" paperback, 80 pages

This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.


Copyright © 2017 by Victor Altshul


Before Selma


I wanted to be a Brownie,
but God and my first-grade teacher
decreed I was to be a Bunny.

The Bunnies were nine cutesy girls
and me, all dressed in pearly white
with long ears that flopped around;

the Brownies were brown
and cool and had eight boys
and the two best girls in the class.

The Brownies bunched up on one side,
the Bunnies on the other.
You think I was going to be
a goddamn cutesy Bunny?
I marched right over to the other side
and got there just as the curtains parted.

Whiteness visible.
Miss Weeks ran onto the stage.

Oh no, Victor, you’re not a BROWNIE,
you’re a BUNNY! You go over THERE!

Loud laughter from the parents.




She will have to rush to make the plane
to play tomorrow in a distant town.

Mother, who may not reach her
hundredth year, says

Play me something on your horn.

From its leather case she guides it out,
long ago bequeathed her
by her grade-school music teacher,

that over time its round tones
might salve the ache of Father,
decades gone,

and she plays patches
of a Mozart concerto, and watches

mother close her eyes and gently fall
into the softness of her bed,
smiling, breathing with the music’s grace.

Well past time she hurries down the hall,

hugging the horn in its soft leather case

After being told that Beethoven
had composed some late quartets for me,
Brahms set out to write his two sextets.
I did not learn about his eagerness
to dedicate these works to me, and more,
until well after I was born: too late
to send the customary thank-you note,
as he had died some forty years before.

In a musty loft and breathing dust,
they squinted through the motes,
inhaled me as they penned their notes
upon the staves, though I would not exist
until, some decades thence, I was composed.

Astonished by harmonic mysteries
and polyphonic flights in lowering skies,
I heard transformed my inharmonious life,
and felt transfigured by their throbbing light—
this I for whom they were inspired to write.

I have lived richly through these captive men,
and richly have I let them live through me;
and when I die, they each will die again,
no longer having any cause to be.


Dear Emily


I can remember a time much earlier in my life
when I think I would have loved you very much.
You were shy,
shyer even than I,
and would not have pressed me
to the edge of failure and shame,

and your very plainness, Emily,
would have comforted me,
as I would not have had to worry
about the brawnier, smoother boys,

and you would have taught me
poetry, and I would not have had to wait
so long to discover
what I should have been in love with all along—

we’d have been so sweet together, Emily,
but for a darkish thought that hovers
like a small rain cloud barely covering the sun,

that I never really understood you—I felt
I ought at least to make some sense
of what a girl friend means when she speaks,
but with you—how shall I say this—
I never did—no, not at all, and besides—

those dashes, Emily—those infernal dashes—
stopping, starting, stopping, starting again—
and trying to read you once more nowadays—
I get to the right side of your dash—
and cannot remember—what had been—
on the left.




Determined to announce my blood is blue,
I basely claimed our heritage the same:
though we’d been only wed a week or two,
she saw the shtetl in her married name.

I basely claimed our heritage the same,
my oversized proboscis quite ignored;
she saw the shtetl in her married name.
I said I was a Cabot and looked bored,

my oversized proboscis quite ignored.
“Don’t let your New York wit show up in church;
Just say you are a Cabot and look bored—
do what you can to pass for one, and purge

your New York wit; don’t let it show in church,
the white one on the Green I made you join;
do what you can to pass for one, and purge
the errors of your blood with bread and wine.”

Approaching the white church she made me join,
I felt a tell-tale tingling in my head.
“The errors of your blood explode with wine—
your bald spot glistens—Christ, it’s flashing red!”

I felt that tell-tale tingling in my head—
my exodus from Egypt was in view.
My bald spot glistened; my yarmulke flashed red:
I knew it would proclaim, “But he’s a Jew!”

My exodus from Egypt was in view.
Though we’d been only wed a week or two,
I shouted to the churchtops: “I’m a Jew!”—
determined to announce my blood is blue.

Special Theory of Relativity


I’d call it giving you the time of day:
a second on atomic clocks will match
the second measured on a standard watch.
A second is a second, sages say,

until missed chances force you to admit
that seconds that are lived rush by their brothers,
like faster trains that overtake the others.
As Omar long ago conceived of it,
they’re not retrieved by piety or wit.

If only you could stretch the ones that race
too quickly by for you to think
of thanking her for the special book,
of lingering with her over a special drink,
of delighting in her wondering face,
and showing that delight in how you look
at her, of praising sonnets that she sent;
of moving envy to the side, to clear space
for the halting softness of a compliment,

you might be just a little less aware
of those that beat their rhythms as they blink
like fireflies in the sweltering evening air,
or atoms trying to shove each other aside,
more rapidly than you and she can bear.