Book Review

Striding through the woods one autumn afternoon, with oak nuts falling, a red hawk sailing overhead, and a breeze cooling his reddened cheeks, the poet notes that, “all is living and all is dead.” It’s an observation that reflects, and in some way defines, the content of this collection by radiation oncologist Matthew Mumber. Confronting day after day the wretchedness and the fear that walks with cancer, he is nonetheless keenly receptive to the wonders in this world that surprise us, sustain us, and carry us through. He is as sensitive to the outline of a hickory tree “carved into the sky” as he is to to the distress of his patients, sharing their “. . . uncertainty, / their bone-gnawing pain, their fatigue, / isolation.”

Mortality, realized in scientific and clinical detail, is combined here with a spiritual lyricism, resulting in a body of work that is both uplifting and sorrowful, engaging, challenging, and, in one instance, mesmerizingly banal. Let me explain: “homeostasis” (all titles here are in lower case) is a relentlessly dense, sixteen-line description of (I think) the process of tumour-cell destruction. It is bewildering and also a little frightening to the uninitiated or, like this reviewer, the plainly ignorant. But it’s the two lines that follow this blitz of scientific terminology that I found so appealing, so delightful:

I consider this while sipping
my morning green tea.

These few words, wonderfully unexpected and incongruous as they are, make for a coda which is reassuringly human and nicely bizarre.

Of course, the idea that science and poetry are mutually exclusive has long been a thing of the past, even if there are some who think, like Keats, that a dispassionate eye might steal a little magic from the world. That theory was disproved early on by the likes of Humphry Davy, James Clerk Maxwell, and Ada Lovelace, to name but a few, and is further evidenced here. I’m not necessarily referring to the poems about science, but to an understanding that the clear-eyed and analytical can be equal to the romantic, to the dreamer, in producing works of beauty and meaning. After all, the sight of a buddleia breaking through concrete on a garage forecourt is both fascinating and beguiling to all.

There is a meditative feel to much of the poetry here, perhaps unsurprising considering the author’s chosen career and its attendant demands on both character and soul. In a poem of some delicacy he relates how a prayer bell in the wind allows “. . . the moving air to lighten / densities of fear and leave behind / just this breath, just this moment—now.” In “who am I?” he questions his identity, wondering if he is the pigeon-toed boy of six with metal leg braces, a student of medicine, or a wealthy American doctor with a house on a mountain ridge. Is he the recovering Catholic, thirty-five years married with three sons, is he “a lit candle / in a windless place,” or is he:

a poet, as my fragility
falls onto this page
in the service of the unsayable

That kind of humbling uncertainty denied to the incurious and the dogmatic is apparent in these perceptive and accessible poems imbued with a quiet, understated sympathy; poems that betray perhaps an impatience to find answers, to filter murmurs from the wind.

A more immediate question is posed in a telling piece where we are invited to accompany him from car to clinic under a moon, lavender grey in colour, as if “. . . the dark side / is leaking through to the surface.” That lyrical introduction is then almost brutally displaced by some grisly details from the examination room in an interview with a patient with chronic obstruction of the airways who, on leaving, lights up a cigarette. Why do I bother, he might reasonably ask himself, but the simple answer is that he’ll “march on” with this patient because he (she?) matters to him—a simple truth that is apparent throughout these pages.

It seems this ethos or sensibility was instilled in him by a certain Dr Lewis Barnett, his teacher and mentor at medical school, who is referenced fondly in a long and intriguing poem, expertly laid out in eight sections beginning with the attention-grabbing line, “Jesus stops by the clinic today.” Talk of rocket ships, video games, and viruses; some strange and disturbing dreams; the atmosphere of an intensive care unit with no clocks, no mirrors, no windows, and the intricacies of a gentle bedside manner, are seeded with touching reminiscences, some fairly bleak thoughts, and the inevitable self-doubt. It’s a remarkable poem in both its reach and its intimacy, and concludes with the lines:

I am an unworthy instrument,
an out-of-date piano
with an unseen virtuoso playing me blind.
I yearn to share the message.

By the way, Jesus turns out to be a man who had injured his side scrambling over a wall, in case you were wondering. And, in the spirit of a fascinating melding of science and poetry, we are informed that the laceration was stitched with braided 3.0 vicryl!

The title of this disparate and stimulating collection, assembled with a sure handling of the mechanics of poetry, refers to so much more than the compassion of a doctor who listens, feels, appreciates the fragility of the poor soul before him. It encompasses, too, the attention paid by Matthew Mumber to the bigger picture, to the gifts of nature revealed like a reproof, to the singularity of the world, and to the quiet courage and puzzlement of its temporary residents. Other medics might attach less importance to such esoteric conjecture, but, given the choice, I for one know whose list I would rather be on.

About the Reviewer

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has appeared in Ambit, Allegro, The Crank, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Decanto, Picaroon, Purple Patch and others. His book reviews have featured in Heavy Feather Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Poetry International Online, The Lit Pub, Sugar House Review and Colorado Review.