Jack Coulehan

Physician · Poet

“In pursuing objectivity, it is tempting to neglect the more difficult project of nourishing tenderness in our relationships with patients and with ourselves. Poetry bids us consider taking a different path in our professional lives.”
From “Confessions of a Poetry Doctor”

On Reading Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”

You dampen dressings with warm water,

detach them from dried blood and debris,

carefully removing layers of gauze

without a gown, without gloves. An attendant

stands behind you with a bucket of soiled

bandages and shifts impatiently

from one foot to the other while you work .

You lean close to a soldier’s yellow-blue

countenance, inserting his shattered language

into a letter addressed to his sweetheart.

When his whisper drops off, you suggest,

though never in haste, a word for the text.

You camp on a stool beside the cot,

observing your man, embracing the scene.

I stop at the foot of each cot and check

its numbers and charts. This body, wasted

and sinking, is next. I ask and record,

examine and plan, confident that signs

I interpret tell the truth. You remain

tinkering at your soldier’s side, as I step

to the next cot and the cot after that.

Take Off Your Clothes

I was taught to include specific

detail, like down to your underpants

and socks, or all but your panties

and bra, whichever might apply.

And season my request with modest

withdrawal, I’ll step out of the room

for a moment now. And follow this

with the obvious, Then I’ll come back.

I was taught always to offer a gown,

frequently folded backwards and faded,

and tell the patient, Put the opening

behind and this sheet across your lap.

In the next step, I learned to uncover

the roots of bewilderment, beginning

with the eyes and continuing down,

a performance laden with gesture,

encouraging hope. I delivered my script.

And you, my intimate companion,

you were consigned to endure the suspense

of me reading  a narrative in your flesh.

Praise for the Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems

In The Talking Cure, distinguished physician and poet Jack Coulehan gathers thirty years of his work at the intersection of storytelling and healing. Here we encounter us all: a six-hundred-pound man propped up in side-by-side hospital beds, a wife of a doctor turned by illness into patient herself, a man in the clinic of a local Starbucks become a woman, the absent fathers and distant mothers, each afflicted with the same need to be heard, and to be seen, in the miserable beauty of our shared human condition. We hear their heartbeats in this skilled poet's iambs and see their swollen legs in the full shapes of stanzas. Like Chekhov and Whitman, kindred spirits he evokes, in his every line, Coulehan asks, "How can I open up, give voice//turn these words into flesh?" His answer is this unflinching, humane, and always attentively listening to poetry.

-Rafael Campo, MD, author of Comfort Measures Only

Jack Coulehan's The Talking Cure takes us on a wild, wonderful, and wide-ranging journey, sweeping us along on a current of poems: accomplished, fierce, gentle, intelligent, and, above all, compassionate. Coulehan writes about the joys of medicine, of family, love, and faith, while not ignoring the frustrations of caring deeply for others, how sometimes even the most compassionate must struggle to "squeeze a portion" of the heart, allowing "a few drops of compassion" to escape ("Lift Up Your Heart"). The author writes most often in the voice of a physician, but also in the voice of patients, revealing their terrors and ravages, fears often shared by the narrator as he deftly balances the clinical and the humane in poetry that is rich with images, deeply personal, and often simply beautiful.

-Cortney Davis, author of "Taking Care of Time"