(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press/Leapfolio 2020)
In a slim paperbound volume, which sports a pale blossom on its rain-colored cover — reminiscent of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” — poet and oncologist Matthew Mumber’s thirty-nine poems offer a collective glimpse into the intimate mysteries of life and human suffering. His first section, “awaken,” calls forth an awareness of the intricate miracles of a spider web or a baptismal scene, juxtaposed with honest vulnerability as the speaker weeps over former patients’ funerals, attends cancer walks, and bears his soul to medicine like a long-suffering spouse. Another section, “falling,” plunges the reader further into primal intimacy of the fears and pains of a parent, as well as the quiet observations of a flower planter, a swimmer, and a hiker. In the final section, “deeper,” the speaker bears witness to his patients’ cancer, to a tumultuous COVID-19-driven world, and to life in general. In the Awakening Season is a confession, an indictment, and an invitation, punctuated with uncertainties and fears that are quelled in Mumber’s incisive arrival at the pervasive beauty in his world.
Mumber’s poems evoke both the grand and intrapersonal scopes of a Thomas Wolfe novel. He grounds everyday events in momentous proportion, sometimes cosmically so. His daughter’s commencement occurs “Fifteen thousand years after glaciers / chiseled out our valley,” echoing Warhol’s claim of each person’s fifteen minutes of fame by showcasing her “15 seconds” which, for him, makes the earth tremble. In less grand moments, Mumber nonetheless locates a gravity that borders on the epic; in “Connected,” he is spellbound by the inexplicable miracle of:
a single autumn leaf
quaking and turning and
rising and falling with
an imperceptible wind,
somehow suspended, eye level,
mid-air, just to the side of me…
He suspends the weight of the world’s mystery in so thin and fragile an object, again evoking Wolfe’s ear eternally cocked to the invitation from the stones and leaves of the world, in his quiet celebration of the everyday miracle. Mumber threads his poems, all titled with double meanings, with images of a leaf, buds, blossoms on a branch — the poems’ elegant detail and occasional stanza structure are reminiscent of a haiku. The poems that are explicitly medically driven manifest strong spiritual undercurrents. As the speaker collects his patient’s belongings in “On the Day of Departure”:
I ask to feel
what God feels
in relation to each
individual for eternity,
one by one by one—
each born upside down
There is a quiet boldness interwoven in these moments, as Mumber looks holistically at life from its beginning and end — the latter which he knows and accompanies intimately, or when the speaker invites an unnamed listener to “die with me / just once / while we are still breathing” in “Resurrection” or to “Breathe with me, / this ordinary day” in “Destiny,” teasing out the daily demands of living and dying on humanity’s courage and endurance.
His boldness resonates louder in his indictments against apathy and malicious power. In his “Sermon on the Hill,” Mumber inverts Christ’s Sermon on the Mount with sardonic language, blessing “those who eternally defend, attack, and deny / They shall escape persecution in their own name’s sake.” The speaker, placed in Washington DC, gathers shards of a broken mirror in which his own body is broken into pieces, and a communal gathering of strangers arranges these fragments into an object of beauty and testimony. The moment is rendered as surreal and hyperbolically symbolic in its initial grounding between waking and sleeping; the reader is unsure if this event is actually happening, if the speaker “awakens” from a dream or something more malevolent.
In his “Ode to the Pulp Mill,” Mumber again uses sardonic language to unleash his strongest indictment. Reminiscent of Wendell Berry, Mumber’s speaker castigates the mill in detail for its many contributions to various deadly pollutions, leading his patients to ask him “how a person who has never smoked / can get lung cancer.” The language here abandons its soft imagery and instead issues cold undeniable statistics and facts. Yet, the same devotion to life and connection to the spiritual world carries through from his preceding poems; this speaker cannot remain silent in the presence of a silent industrial killer. His words stem from the previous poems’ deep-rooted love and respect for the natural world and the people who inhabit it; even his harshest criticism resonates with the same quiet meditation and acute observation.
Though deeply imbued in spiritual hunger and awareness, Mumber’s speaker confesses barefacedly in a titular poem that he does not know how to pray. This confession is appropriate, underscoring as it does the purpose of Mumber’s testimonies. These poems do not attempt to offer answers; in the face of universal suffering — for oncologist Mumber, his vocation — such an attempt would ring hollow. Instead, Mumber offers a celebration for the beauty in life; in dizzying energy echoing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and King David’s uncontainable joyous dance before God, Mumber is “dancing and spinning and floating, / … I empty all of myself out” with shouts of joy and a promise that “Everything will / be refilled to overflowing.” In the meantime, he also recognizes that desperate human need for suffering to have meaning, to have answers. In “Prayer,” he offers an unspoken evocation to “You … who cannot be known, / eternal exhaler of all things,” an evocation that remains largely unspoken, “only you can hear / with my lips right next / to the tiny hairs on your lower earlobe.” Mumber allows room for his unknown audience, on whom he ladens such unapologetic intimacy, to still themselves in deeper questioning, in the reality Mumber offers of destiny and answers, given or not, for human life to “Imagine each and every step / a great allowing.”
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Shannon Nakai‘s reviews have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, and her poems have been featured in Cincinnati Review, Cream City Review, Atlanta Review, Image, Midwest Review, Gulf Stream, and Cimarron Review, to name a few. She is also a Fulbright Scholar and Pushcart Prize nominee.