Altshul (Stumblings, 2013) brings a gentle wit and a multifaceted view of human existence to his second poetry book.
As the title indicates, one of the throughlines of this collection is the observation of nature—an earthy, figurative framework that gives the poems a common theme. The linked concepts of mortality, memory, sex, and cycles of death and rebirth run strongly through every poem, including those that borrow language from other fields, such as “Vodka Blues,” a rueful examination of a martini gone wrong. These topics give the collection an overarching viewpoint—that of a man reviewing his life. Despite a handful of poignant regrets (as in the affecting “Entreaty,” which keenly portrays his inadvertent role in the killing of a horse), the narrator appears to find the sum of his life to be on the positive side of the ledger. Readers who enjoy the work of Robert Frost—who’s quoted at the opening of this slim compilation—will find much to enjoy in Altshul’s work, as they have several points in common, including the recurrent stanza structure, the use of natural imagery, and the New England setting. However, Altshul leavens his work with a frankness about sex that Frost couldn’t get away with, and he often uses precisely placed profanity and a quick, gentle wit that always points back to himself as a figure of fun. “Patience,” for example, shows the narrator preening over his erudition while getting his facts wrong, and “Samarra, the Sequel” demonstrates how being helpful to the Grim Reaper can backfire. Warmly humanistic without wallowing in sentiment, wise without being world-weary, and readily tipping his authorial hat to his influences (including John Donne and Wallace Stevens), Altshul celebrates life by acknowledging its inevitable end.
Readers who appreciate a warm poetic voice would do well to dive into Altshul’s quick-witted, gregarious work.