Aug 2 2023
Poetry review – THE ATTENDING: Charles Rammelkamp finds Matthew Mumber’s poems about his experience as a physician amount almost to a guide to wise living
“To attend” means to be present, to be aware of what is happening here and now – an attractive quality in a physician and especially so from the viewpoint of a patient whose life and health may be on the line. “Stop, pay attention, attend,” is a line Matthew Mumber repeats as a mantra-like instruction in the poem, ‘oncology clinic, Tuesday’, in which the poet recounts a typical workday in his practice as a radiation oncologist.
But attending, paying attention, is also essential to being fully human and fully appreciating life. Moreover, it’s a quality that can be cultivated through mindful practice. As the poet writes in ‘prayer bell’,
Allow the moving air to lighten densities of fear and leave behind just this breath, just this moment—now.
Mumber praises the teachers who have helped him become the person and the physician he wants to be, from his mother, whose gratitude in the face of tragedy and whose loving efficiency provided an example, and his father (“You taught me / by your actions // to do what I love / and be my own boss, // to dream…”) through to his medical and spiritual mentors.
These mentors include Dr. Louis Burnett, who took Mumber under his wing in medical school when, frustrated by all the textbook learning (“too many formulas, no people”), he was thinking of quitting medicine altogether (‘lessons learned from Dr. B over time’). Another is Dr. Bernie Siegel, who steered Mumber into choosing his medical specialty by encouraging him to draw pictures of himself in various roles and having his fellow medical students vote on them from the different representations (‘bernie siegel’). Siegel, “the famous healer, author, and speaker,” as Mumber addresses him, wrote the best-selling book, Love, Medicine and Miracles. Jim Finley, whom he met in a program on spirituality at the Living School for Action and Contemplation through the Rohr Institute, is another mentor Mumber cites (“infinite heart”).
Somewhere in the middle of his talk, he says something about infinite love and longing so casual and profound I am unable to think of anything else.
In the poems ‘compassionate practice’, ‘a student of medicine’, and ‘who am I?’ we get a vivid picture of the kind of compassionate doctor Mumber has become – “a healer, applying / merciful awareness to those pains.” His mentors certainly deserve their shout-out for contributing to his development. As he concludes the poem about his medical training:
Isolation and abandonment are prerequisites for the privilege to ask the question: How can I serve?
Thích Nhat Hanh is another teacher Mumber praises (‘thay’), for his spiritual insight and wisdom (“When you say Enjoy breathing in, Enjoy breathing out, / a light pierces / my forehead and opens my eyes.”). Mumber further cites his teacher’s wisdom:
Enlightenment cannot be transmitted. It can only be practised.
Mumber concludes the poem in praise of the Buddhist monk, reflecting on his teacher now that he is no longer living, with the confession, “I see your eyes everywhere now, / like a bell that does not stop ringing.”
Life and Death are indeed at the center of Matthew Mumber’s poetry. In the very first poem, titled ‘life and death’, he reflects on his frequent role as “white-coat witness / to a patient taking / her final out-breath.” But the dead, he reflects, live on through their survivors. It is his duty, yes, to shine his pen light into the deceased’s eyes, to listen to the heart that has ceased to beat, confirm the absence of a pulse in the wrist, to certify their passing, but
I can no longer discern where death ends and life begins.
Life and death are certainly on the minds of his patients in ‘consultation’, in which a woman learns she has cancer, but nobody asks “the crucial question: / How long?”; in ‘chronicity’, in which a life-long cigarette smoker (“You started smoking at age 7, stealing your parents / sticks. Now forty years later, chronic obstruction / appears…”) undergoes examination and treatment for tumors and yet is unable to quit cigarettes; and in ‘attending’:
I declared my sadness at your refusal to treat the curable cancer.
In all of these cases, Mumber is keenly aware of mortality and his duty to provide comfort and guidance as well as treatment and cure. As Mumber suggests in his meditative sonnet, ‘alike’, all of us are individuals who, though we have similarities and bonds – we breathe the same life-sustaining air – all need to be attended to in our particularity. Breath and air are key, as he declares more than once, likening life to an “immersion in a sea of air” (‘flesh and bone’). As Thích Nhat Hanh enjoined his students, “Enjoy breathing in, / Enjoy breathing out,” so Mumber knows life is lived in this very moment. Indeed, “rest, renew, sit down,” as the penultimate poem in the collection encourages. Or “Be here now”, as Ram Dass also wrote.
While not exactly a “how-to” guide, Matthew Mumber’s The Attending points the way to a more mindful and more compassionate – more fulfilling – way of living.