Poet Matt Mumber, an integrative radiation oncologist serving a rural Georgia community, is among a long list of physician poets—past and present—that includes Oliver Wendall Holmes, John Keats, and Rafael Campo.
He’s a kind man with a towering physical stature juxtaposed with an incredibly gentle, disarming southern charm. We’ve known each other for a good dozen years, and I’ve been in his company on several occasions during medical conferences and public and private talks he’s invited me to participate in.
What I did not know was that Matt is a poet. When an advance copy of The Attending arrived in my mailbox, I was surprised to learn it was his second book. He asked that I take a look and, of course, leave a review.
I also did not know that I was a poem guy; I devoured the entire collection.
I now feel that I really know Matt Mumber: how he approaches patient care; the level of empathy and love he deeply feels for those around him; and the strength of his faith. He is honest in echoing his formative years, relationships, shortcomings, doubts, and regrets. And like many bards before him, his work reflects his profound appreciation for nature.
I now feel I know myself a little better too, and am grateful to Matt for allowing me deeper into his world and life experiences through his poetry.
I present to you five outstanding poems from my friend and colleague Dr. Matt Mumber. I trust you will get to know more about Matt, too.
life and death
On this hastily churched, weekday morning,
the momentum of private worlds
screeches to a complete stop.
The pulpit declares:
The dead are among us.
I sit in the oak pew
and remember a sleepover
interrupted by mom and dad
whispering the night her father died.
Also, crying through my speech
at grandma’s funeral,
especially the part about
seeing her in the blooms of apple trees.
Often, I attend the starch-white bedside
of someone else’s family, white-coat witness
to a patient taking
her final out-breath,
the pause remaining,
as though all the dead
inhale somewhere else
in perfect rhythm.
From experience, I know that
the dead breathe
through the people in the room.
First, air becomes blood,
perfuses through the lizard brain
which signals fears of decomposition,
stimulates necessary procedures.
Air enables the bowel
to digest what is vital,
discard the rest,
distribute what nourishes.
That air empowers muscle,
which moves fingers to pluck out
delicate messages on our devices.
The air turns into heart,
circulates what has been shared,
enshrines it in some kind of sacristy
holding a holy eucharist.
The dead must first speak to the doctor.
At those dark bedsides, I fumble with my words,
palpate for a radial pulse at the wrist,
peel open one eye gently by separating
the upper and lower lid and shine a pen light
into the widened iris to observe
lack of contraction. Finally, a stethoscope
is placed to the left of the sternum
and ten seconds go by, listening
to a heart that has ceased
its role as drum.
of the diagnosis of death is final.
The air that carries my words becomes
laced with thoughts of connection,
fear and remembrance.
I kneel now, lean on the back of the wooden pew,
stand as directed, then sit down straight.
I press my palms together in front of my chest.
I can no longer discern
where death ends and life begins.
a student of medicine
They took my heart first, too much subjectivity.
Next my feet, planted me in a soil full
of formulas, pathways, trans-isomers.
Next my eyes, except for what was made visible
under a microscope at high power.
Next my right brain, with creativity
suspended in formalin, jars filled with thinking,
peer-reviewed, vetted and published.
Next, the left brain purposefully augmented,
enhanced with cyber-security
zoned off from everything and all else,
anything other than objective facts
diagnosed as useless. Passage granted
into deeper chambers, body adorned in
a starched, name-embroidered bright white lab coat
reflecting all things away, a mirror,
a shield, protecting a tower
of rationality, no emotions.
Then they instructed me to care. Just be human.
Do what comes naturally. The white coat
stretched lower down and reached my knees.
understand me when I say
this was necessary?
A substance rooted within whose fine scent
will never fade away.
This planting requires a dark confinement
as worm-laden compost to nourish
a unique heart, virgin vision, neo-cortex,
flexible, durable bone.
Isolation and abandonment
for the privilege to ask the question:
How can I serve?
the reliable taste of spaghetti sauce,
spices from a package,
meatballs hand rolled,
cleaned floors, hand-washed dishes,
the particular place that we each occupied
at the kitchen table,
how everything was prepared when
all arrived home and how we were
transported to wherever we were going–
the piano, voice, guitar, acting
and speech lessons, swim practice
so we wouldn’t drown like she almost did,
even getting a lighter for me at the Handy Market
so I could learn how to start a fire
and burn my fingers once or twice–
invisible shadows of her dish-worn
hands, folded together while kneeling
in church every day, praying,
giving thanks that she
survived the breast cancer
when I was just eight
with three younger sisters,
whispers of ferocious trust.
who am I?
a lit candle
in a windless place,
a pigeon-toed 6-year-old
with metal leg braces,
a competitive swimmer, team captain,
only successful through work ethic,
a wealthy American doctor,
with a home on a mountain ridge
that overlooks a massive volcanic valley,
a student of medicine,
a country doctor stuck
in the postmodern medical mechanism,
a healer, applying
merciful awareness to those pains
previously dismissed in judgment and dismay?
Wombliska, White Eagle, a name given
by Lakota teachers, along with the
feather of a red hawk,
Compassionate Mountain of the Heart,
student of Thay, teacher of how
to arrive right here, right now,
Matthew Peter Joseph Mumber,
baptized and confirmed,
father of three sons,
struggling to get out of their way
and love them into being,
a husband, lover
of one woman for 35 years,
a son who does not
spend enough time with aging parents,
daily life taking precedence.
a poet, as my fragility
falls onto this page
in the service of the unsayable.
The intoxicating smell of gardenia
in patches, just beneath drip irrigation,
perfuses the concentric terraces—
gardening rounds, just outside my home.
I have not kept up with the burgeoning growth;
grasses fill the sides of plant beds.
They are of no concern.
Morning breezes cool my neck
as the sun marches south
three weeks past summer solstice.
Arkansas Black, Stayman, Yellow Delicious apples
load up the trees. I toss the damaged ones.
On one particular tree, green cherries cluster
but never seem to ripen red.
Rosemary the size of a Fiat—
I pick a frond and place it between my cheek and gums,
walk past lemon oregano, German thyme,
cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peppermint, blueberry bushes
whose fruit the birds have now completely consumed.
Plum trees stretch high above a metal, protective cage,
avoid the deer whose tiny scat crunches beneath my wet sneakers.
Muscadine vines produce tiny berries,
Saint John’s wort, lavender, figs sprout firm, new fruit.
On my watering rounds, the lemon balm stands in full flower,
starry dianthus speaks red, then pink, then pink and white,
hosta boasts green shoots with purple accents,
daylilies wilt way past bloom, sway over the multiplying hens and chicks.
Chrysanthemums flower early, dry easily, I soak them,
remove the spent, dark blossoms.
Holding a ruffled white gardenia floret in my hand,
I watch the thin layer of dense smog
produced by the linerboard plant
settle over the valley below, where some of my cancer patients live.
I breathe in with them,
inhale their molecules of smog, of uncertainty,
their bone-gnawing pain, therapy fatigue,
I bring a flowered hand to nose,
breathe out a bouquet
full of expectant mountain garden,
alive with eyes, heart, nose,
delicate fingers and toes.
Copyright © 2023 Matthew Mumber