Bursting with Danger and Music reveals Jack Coulehan’s characteristic sensitivity to contradictions, tensions, and creative energy. The book is divided into six sections, thematically held together with such headings as “All Souls’ Day” and “Levitation.” Many of the poems are first person narrations by patients, physicians, and observers of the natural world. Sometimes the patients are near death, as in “Darkness is Gathering Me” and “Slipping Away,” where they observe their own dying without fear but with wonder and even a sense of celebration: “I’m pouring through the pores/ of this room, I’m already/ feeling the jazz and hormones begin” (p. 39).
In “The Internship Sonnets,” he experiences the world of the medical intern, often scared and exhausted, who is caught between his subservient duty to the chief of medicine and his own violations of that duty, such as telling the truth to patients. Where is his primary duty? What ought he to do in these conflicting value systems?
Jack Coulehan has written often about the conflict between empathy and objectivity. How is a physician to balance caring for his/her patients with a necessary detachment; how can one be empathic and still remain objective enough to see clearly? Often one goes too far out of balance. In the poem “Detached Concern” his patient-narrator complains that his doctor won’t even touch his hand. No “human stuff” for her. All she wants to do is “measure with her scope and cuff” (p. 43). Her cold distance makes him feel much worse.
This collection also demonstrates Coulehan’s skill at yoking together such apparently unrelated things as the Big Bang theory of universe and his love for his wife, whose presence “creates a new dimension—call it Dance—/which enlivens space and time and chance” (p.90).
In “Five Moons of Venus” he talks of his sons mistaking Jupiter for Venus as they fiddle with a telescope in the back yard. But he goes from that family scene to Galileo challenging the accepted world view. “God might be more complicated than/ we imagine and less like a larger/ version of us. How much of the known/ might be wrong! How much of the truth hidden!” (p. 85)
Those same questions pervade much of Coulehan’s poetry. Even in the simplest, most ordinary things, he sees holiness and complexity. Yet he does not take himself too seriously; he undercuts his spirituality and search for meaning with a sense of humor and with a genuine feeling of kinship with the rest of life, whether it be a spider in the bathroom sink or an Australian desert tree.