Dr. Jack Coulehan, the distinguished Emeritus Professor of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University continues to write more palpable and prescient poems.
Bursting with Danger and Music offers his compassionate eye for witnessing the inherent beauty and darkness in the daily rounds of medicine and life. In an e-mail to me he revealed, ” I think mostly in terms of medical incidents or images that strike me and the “theme” only arises as the poem develops. If you look at my work as a whole, there is a lot of overlap. Nowadays, a larger percentage of my poems arise from non-medical experiences.”
Coulehan’s poems and stories have appeared in major literary magazines and medical journals in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia; and his work is widely anthologized. His collections of poetry include The Knitted Glove (1991), First Photographs of Heaven (1994), The Heavenly Ladder (2001), and the celebrated Medicine Stone (2002).
I am also an admirer of his earlier anthology, Blood & Bone with contributions by other physicians. This specific collection added measured validation that poetry and medicine have been linked by metaphors.
Dr. Pauline Chen in a New York Times blog, “The Doctor as Poet,” asserts that ” Poetry has long been linked to medicine; in mythology, the Greek god Apollo was responsible for, among other things, both healing and poetry. And poets like John Keats, Olver Wendell Holmes Sr. and William Carlos Williams were all trained as doctors. For them and other physicians of their time, reading or writing poetry required skills not that dissimilar from those employed in daily clinical work–an ability to connect emotionally with the subject, as well as careful attention to rhythm, wheter it was in the form of verse or heartbeats and breathing.”
For sure, Coulehan knows that doctors are immersed in stories. Like William Carlos Williams, he also discovers in the ordinary, a plethora of extraordinary images; an abiding interest in other lives and generous acts of kindness.
Dr. Coulehan and his publisher, Plain View Press, have kindly granted me permission to post this poem, “The Act of Love” from his latest anthology. For those of us engaged in teaching courses in Literature and Medicine, Coulehan’s poems never disappoint since they always demonstrate his engagement with life.
The Act of Love
How foolish Celia must look
to the Haitian cab driver
on the Medicaid run!
She wears a white communion dress
the week before Easter, a sign
she brings me something more pressing
than the pain in her shoulder
and the son who doesn’t talk to her
because his wife is embarrassed.
Her hips creak in conversation,
her knees grind, but even crepitant joints
are modestly silent and stand aside
when Celia hands me a potted plant
for my office—an act of Christian love,
she says, not a sign of being personal.
As for me, I’m stunned
out of the ordinary anger
at failing to help her
by the waxy-leaves of her gesture
and I receive this wafer of the season,
heartbroken for no reason.