JACK COULEHAN, M.D. is a Poet and Emeritus Professor of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. Poems on Authors’ Page ©


Knobs appear beneath his drab sweater.
He comes in wearing a dark skirt
and gypsy blouse. When he sits at a table
near me, I notice the scarlet nails.
In a short time, I switch to the pronoun
she prefers. Several mornings a week
we sit, our backs to the windows,
two tables apart. When a story appears
in the Times on a marvel of medicine,
she brings it to my attention,
addressing me as “Doctor.” I’m surprised
her voice hasn’t softened, her walk remains
masculine. Her breasts become larger,
but her face and bare arms, though smoother,
reveal the same sharp scaffolding
they used to. With regard to an article
that touts advances in gene therapy,
she becomes flustered at my lack of
enthusiasm. With regard to a piece
about a theatrical new cure
for depression—I suggest reserving
just a pocket of doubt. In the months
that follow, her salt-and-pepper hair
remains dull, her makeup impasto,
her posture graceless. Metamorphosis
has ground to a halt, though trinkets of change
continue to accumulate. Each morning
I look for a difference I can’t put my
finger on, but have faith will shine through
when it happens. I yearn to nudge her,
to tip her toward happiness. She’s not
like those miracles in the paper, she’s real.

“Metamorphosis,” reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, 2013


Role Model

A hairy man with eyebrows
as thick as Ernie Kovacks’
kneaded my upper back
and murmured in his
hypnotic voice, Relax,
let your muscles soften,
while prone on his table
I tightened at the scent
of gardenias he exuded.
The doctor dug his thumbs
into my spine, humming
like an humongous dwarf,
an entity far beyond
what I, at fifteen, had
ever known. He told me
migraines were messages
from my body, spoken
in a language I could learn
if I was sharp. Sit up, he said,
and listen. The first lesson:
my profusion of hormones
was natural, a state
without shame. Second:
no masturbation. It would
weaken my system. Third:
work out . And fourth: avoid
entanglement with girls.
Is that all? The same messages
the priest I had avoided
like the plague had taken
the boys aside last year
to give. I wanted a pill
for my headaches. I wanted
to get out of his office
and take a shower, to hide
my shame in a book. A vague
craving began to unfold,
a thirst to prove the quack
completely wrong—my first
step toward medicine.


Fish Massage
Siem Reap, Cambodia

I slip my clogs off and submerge my feet
in the fish tank for relief
of migraine, muscle ache, fatigue, and stress.

Two clouds of tiny fish nibble my soles
for their sloughed cells, sweat, and dirt,
debris that holds me down.

I sip the cup of Cambodian beer
free with each treatment, but refuse
to purchase a sacred penis.

Two Filipino girls on the bench
of the next tank squirm with delight,
while a third videos their feet.

It tickles, the youngsters cry. I chuckle, too,
at being seduced by such
unwholesomeness. Imagine the parasites!