- Shafer, Audrey
- Date of entry: Jul-20-2016
- Last revised: Nov-23-2016
The collection is prefaced and named for a poem by Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser, annotated in this database by Jack Coulehan. In “On Reading Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound Dresser’” Coulehan sees Whitman as a nurse tending the Civil War wounded, and, while using some of the words and language of Whitman’s poem, imagines himself moving forward in that created space of caring for patients: “You remain / tinkering at your soldier’s side, as I step / to the next cot and the cot after that.” (p. ix) The poem introduces us to all the ‘cots’ of the book – where we step from patient to patient, through history and geography, and through the journey of medical training. The book is comprised of 4 sections without overt explanation, although there are 4 pages of Notes at the end of the book with information about select individual poems. In general, the themes of the sections can be described as: 1.) clinical care of individual patients and medical training; 2.) reflections on historical medical cases, reported anecdotes or past literary references; 3.) meditations on geographically distinct episodes – either places of travel or news items; and 4.) family memoir, personal history and the passage of time. Many of the poems have been previously published and a few are revised from an earlier chapbook. Notable among the latter is “McGonigle’s Foot” (pp 42-3) from section 2, wherein an event in Philadelphia, 1862 – well after the successful public demonstration of anesthesia was reported and the practice widely disseminated, a drunk Irishman was deemed unworthy of receiving an anesthetic. Although it is easy to look back and critique past prejudices, Coulehan’s poem teaches us to examine current prejudices, bias and discrimination in the provision of healthcare choices, pain relief and access to care. There are many gems in these 72 poems. Coulehan has an acute sensibility about the variety of human conditions he has the privilege to encounter in medical training and clinical practice. However, one of the standouts for me was “Cesium 137” based on a news report of children finding an abandoned radiotherapy source (cesium) in Goiania Brazil, playing with the glowing find and suffering acute radiation poisoning. He writes: “the cairn of their small lives / burst open…their bodies vacillate and weaken / hour by hour, consumed by innocence / and radiant desire.” (p. 68). Following another poem inspired by Whitman, Coulehan concludes the collection with a sonnet “Retrospective.” He chronicles a 40-year career along with physical aging, memories of medical training “etched in myelin,” and the search for connection across that span of career including, “those he hurt, the woman / he killed with morphine, more than a few he saved.” Ultimately, he relies on hope with fitting understatement: “His ally, hope, will have to do.” (p. 97)
The book is a finalist for the 2016 Dorset Poetry Prize, selected by Robert Pinsky.
JB Stillwater Pub. Co.