The Heavenly Ladder is physician-poet Jack Coulehan's most recent chapbook, bringing together 48 poems, many of which have been published individually in various medical journals and literary magazines. The collection is divided into four sections.

Poems in the first section, "Medicine Stone," are written in the voice of patients or in the voice of the physician who treats them. The second section, "So Many Remedies," consists of five poems inspired by physician-author Chekhov. The poems of "The Illuminated Text" section reflect a wide-ranging interest in people who lived in distant times or in distant places. The final section, "Don't Be Afraid, Gringo," stays, for the most part, closer to home and includes a number of poems addressed to, or about, family members.


This collection is a delight. It reflects Coulehan's deep interest in other lives, other times, other places, and demonstrates his great capacity for engagement with humanity. His poetry is always interesting, often humorous, frequently moving, and, one feels, honest.

Consider these poems, told in the physician's voice: "The Azalea Poem," in which the physician assures his dying patient that he will "live to see azaleas bloom" while "the hope I handed Alfred . . . seems so cheaply false . . . so coloured by my need" (12); or "Cracked," a wonderful rendering in which form follows story--"Her story starts the month / her husband dies and circles / to the year she spent in bed / when she was twelve and to the valve // that later turned to stone . . . "(22); or "Body Count" in which "a woman / who should have died last week--she did, / but the medics came--" evokes images of storms and the ruins of Sarajevo (10). In the patient's voice, "Good News" tells of all the frustrating bad news that an unsuspecting man receives "when all I came to the doctor for / was a leg that burnt like scalding water // and, strangely, though I'm still not sick, / my body begins to die " (17).

Coulehan is always connecting with those around him, or with those who have preceded us, whether it is the man who lives in a cardboard box on 53rd Street ("Keeping Dry" [30]), mesa Indians who lived 300 years ago ("These Shards Are Wrist Bones," [54]), 20th-century Egyptian "Women Disfigured by Sulphuric Acid" (41), or his own son ("June 2, 1998," [60]). Sometimes these connections are fraught with difficulty and elicit rueful reflection.

In the superb and funny "Hermit Crab," after enumerating a long list of grievances against someone (a relative?)--"if you tell me one more time"--the speaker threatens to "swing you back and forth without letting / your feet touch the ground" and concludes, "There. I've done it. / I don't know. I don't know if I'll be happy" (49). In "Guam," the speaker tries to communicate with his aged father, who perseverates over a wartime experience, and concludes, sadly, "I waited too long / to redeem the war we carried on, / father and son, for 50 years" (50).

For those who work in the medical humanities field this collection has much to offer. It demonstrates the insight, care, concern, and engagement that characterize Coulehan's approach to medicine, and to life itself. Those who are simply interested in intelligent, witty, accessible poetry will not be disappointed.


Ginninderra Press: PO Box 53, Charnwood ACT 2615, Australia; www. ginninderra


Ginninderra Press

Place Published

Charnwood, Australia



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