Strange Birds poems by Victor Altshul

picture of Victor Altshul
Photo by Laura Altshul.  

About Victor Altshul’s new book of poems, Ginny Lowe Connors has written, “Strange Birds is a marvelous book of poems. The author is not afraid to offer up his own vulnerabilities so that the reader may gain insight into the human condition. It is human nature to want to keep what is wonderful with us, as Victor Altshul demonstrates so vividly, with verve and humor, in his poem ‘The Trouble with Mount Terrible.’  Yet we also keep with us our insecurities and feelings of guilt, our convoluted memories of what went wrong, as Altshul shows in poems about his schizophrenic brother and about a young man deemed healthy enough to send off to the Vietnam war. ‘I’d sent the young man continents away. / His terror ended on the second day.’  In another poem a reticent farmer is so completely filled with his losses that his lungs and heart begin to shrivel—to make room for what the man cannot say, but must carry. As the pelican featured in one of the poems is able to scoop up fish and drain the water away from his catch before swallowing, Victor Altshul captures moments in a life, drains away what’s inconsequential, and uses what’s left to give us a taste of humanity.”
  strange birds cover image
  Cover photograph by Ricardo Mattinez, courtesy of Getty Images.

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.  The author of three earlier poetry collections, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife Laura, also a published poet.

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ISBN 978-1-943826-52-0
First Edition 2019

6" x 9" paperback, 68 pages

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



Copyright © 2019 by Victor Altshul


Boarding School


You had to know my pal Chelminski
to take full measure
of his unfettered enthusiasm for mischief.
One day, for no apparent reason,
he wrote


on the blackboard in history class,
its chalky mockery hidden
behind a Mercator projection of the world,
pulled down to conceal the silliness beneath;
he wrote 


in red paint in the tiled foyer
on the plinth of a bronze statue of Abe Lincoln
(its nose an erotic protuberance stroked
by  giggling, complicit teenage fingers);
he wrote


on our textbooks, on our lockers, in the halls,
on the floors beneath our beds,
and at last, on the door
to the headmaster’s living room.

Ah yes, our headmaster, the sanctimonious Tall Paul,
eventually found the ebullient prankster out,

“Chelminski,” he intoned before the entire school,
“I find your all too inappropriate treatment of


                                        and disgusting.

And here Tall Paul paused, gratified
to enunciate his favorite adjectives,
to wrinkle his skyward nose
and condemn adolescent masturbation.

From somewhere behind invisible curtains
we could hear Chelminski giggle.



morgue drawer open rolled,
face gouged misshapen
fast train jump and bounce and roll

and bounce and roll and bounce and roll
eyelids flutter eyes take in
jaw and lips and tongue loosening
voice throat breath rasping gurgling

you were a shit it’s true it’s true
I don’t blame you not you not you
you did not cause my phrenia
my schizo frigging phrenia

true you were quite mean quite mean
true your hands not clean not clean
though you were a frigging pain
you did not push me from the train

shit though you were you did not cause
my phrenia my phrenia
that voice that screamed I am a shit
you were not the source of it

true you were quite mean quite mean
but don’t forget the gene the gene
nor overlook our darling mother
you suffered too my clever brother

You were a shit how true how true
I don’t blame you not you not you
you did not cause my phrenia
my schizo frigging phrenia

Eyelids flutter, eyes discolor
La commedia è finita brother

my frigging phrenia is done with over
you poor suffering Ivy asshole.

Dog Days


Come back from my past, Willie, please
jump up to me and strain against the leash;
your tongue, protruding, arching toward my face—
sit right there, brown-eyes, wet-nose, and slaver,
marveling how I have grown much braver.

In those days I’m sure that you could see
that even gentle dogs were not for me.
I’d recoil at your jumping in my space;
and even the most surreptitious fart
would provoke a disproportionate start.

Seventy years and more have proved
me sturdier since I missed that chance for love.
Then I didn’t know the meaning of your bays.
I have learned since then to make dog noises,
having won some high-school language prizes.

This is what I’m trying to get at, Willie:
I want another chance to pat your belly.
Please understand that in those cruel days
I was just a frightened boy who screamed
each time you barked, and never even dreamed

that taunting you would be so rough
on you, that dogs made fun of long enough
might run away and join a band of strays,

all wheezing out their panting, fetid breath—
oh Willie, you repelled me half to death.

No Exit


You have just enough time
to take cover behind the stalks
of gleaming wheat, bright yellow
in the cloudless morning sky.
If I could, I’d cry out to you, Run!
Hide behind the wheat,
where I can’t see you.
You don’t know what I have known
of golden wheat
and wheat fields blackened by fire.

I would do better
to sit on a great lawn in springtime,
in eternal verdant equinox,
smiling, invisible, impotent.
You, no longer marked for death,
would saunter by, dressed elegantly
or not as means allow,
as on one of Renoir’s summer afternoons,

in lively conversation with other living souls,
the lawn an emerald oasis watered by joy.

Tom Knows Nothing about Pelicans


Walking along a Carolina shore
I see three pelicans flying in a row
and plan to write about this splendid bird

in spite of Tom, who babbles on
about the heron and claims no pelicans
can be seen along the endless sands

of southern coasts. Just to think
that I would ever mistake a heron
for a pelican! I’m sorry to have to say

that Tom knows nothing about pelicans;
and I do not want to write about herons
right now in any case, and this is why:

last month I wrote a clever villanelle
about a heron that imagines that no one
can imagine it is imagining,

and Tom made a spectacle of himself,
gratuitously proclaiming his disdain
in a fit of ill-disguised pique.

How fed up I am with this captious fool
who bloviates with scant wit on the heron,
sniffing at the worthy feathers of pelicans,

those gaily painted vanes with hues so bright
they make my frizzy hairs shoot up.
Pelican, a dactyl without peer,

leaves the harshly aspirate trochee heron
sounding like an addictive drug. Oh, Tom,
let's talk about fast girls, or chess, instead


Without George


If my grandson George
     were to ask you
          why the sky is blue,

and why darning
     needles hover
          above the pond,

and why the great
     blue heron floats
          downward to the right,

and you were to tell
     him about prisms
          and light refraction,

and about the stark
          of biological systems,

and about Chomsky’s views
     on deep structure
          in avian instinct,

I would invite you
     to dinner
          without my grandson George