Matthew Mumber: The Oncologist Poet

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.


The pronouncement

of the diagnosis of death is final.


The air that carries my words becomes

cheek-bound tears,

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.


Who will

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

are pre-requisites

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?

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?


Call me


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,

recovering Catholic,

father of three sons,

struggling to get out of their way

and love them into being,


I am


a husband, lover

of one woman for 35 years,


a son who does not

spend enough time with aging parents,

daily life taking precedence.


Call me


a poet, as my fragility

falls onto this page

in the service of the unsayable.

compassion practice

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

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