In the Awakening Season
Reviewer: Maria Rouphail
As I write in mid-November, Americans are witnessing the unprecedented spectacle of a sitting President refusing to concede his defeat in what his own US Department of Homeland Security has deemed the most fair and free election in American history. This same President has also fired his own cyber security chief for saying as much.
How can this be? The obvious fact is that America is deeply fractured. We are, it has long been observed, the least happy—or the most anxious—of any country in the developed post-industrial world, even as the US is the wealthiest country, with the most unfettered economy. In this Hedge Fund Age, we have only to glimpse our egregious inequalities to recognize our restiveness. We are awash in “facts.” And yet, segregated into our separate information bunkers, we cannot agree on most of them. America, it would seem, is also exhausted.
I say all of this in order to contextualize the poet whose job it is (as Whitman insisted) to help us see and accept our shared humanity, flaws included. The past summer’s grief (from COVID-19 to George Floyd) has generated all manner of poems of protest, a time-honored genre featuring the poet’s prophetic voice calling for (at the very least) truth. A reader these days can easily access such works in the “Poem a Day” posts by The Academy of American Poets.
Another genre which seems to speak to the current moment might be called the “poetry of healing.” In this mode, the poet focuses on the nature of inner equilibrium and the sanctity of “silence”—even while “speaking” on the page. Matthew Mumber’s In the Awakening Season exemplifies this mode.
In the Awakening Season is the first collection by Dr. Mumber, a radiation oncologist and practitioner of integrative medicine in Rome, Georgia. On first reading the thirty-seven poems, I was reminded of some of the great spiritual teachers of contemplative silence, past and present, including the esteemed Franciscan spiritual director, Richard Rohr. What serendipity, therefore, to see Mumber in the acknowledgments credit Rohr as his teacher! Another aspect of interest is the nod to Pablo Neruda in the epigraph. Mumber quotes Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet.” I will quote Neruda’s poem a bit further, as the passage underscores Mumber’s apparent aim and illuminates our present existential predicament, for which Mumber’s poems provide an interesting alternative:
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Neruda’s and Mumber’s poems are less a call to action than the reflection of an attitude, an orientation toward inwardness and its goal of kenosis, or “emptying” the self of its false programs for success and control. The result is the changing of the heart, its redirection to true wisdom.
“First Flowering,” the opening poem of the collection, is perfection. I quote it in full:
In winter surround,
flouting perils of future frost,
a backyard Japanese cherry
with impossible pink fluorescence.
I feel like a prophet,
in my hometown,
speaking of springs unseen—
always ahead of Times.
With haiku-like concision, the poem’s first stanza announces the certainty of life emergent within apparent lifelessness. The second stanza announces humans’ incredulity before that paradox. The first-person voice here exemplifies Mumber’s immersion in the contemplative tradition as taught by Rohr and others: the speaker testifies to the unseen implications of death-defying life as the ultimate reality. People will think the speaker daft to suggest a thing so tenuous. But that is the core reality revealed outwardly by nature itself, and then by “inwardness”: the speaker has come to see what finally underlies the world of phenomena: life, not death—though death is part of the life process. The familiar theological formula for this insight goes something like this: “The kingdom of God is at hand” or “The kingdom of God is within you.” But this message is not only that of Jesus and the Jewish prophets. It is also at the root of all of the world’s major mystical traditions, including Sufism.
Heart-change is the desired outcome of the inward journey. But it is not true that every spiritual GPS in the world directs one to god-like wisdom. Quite the contrary. The process of inner transformation involves backtracking, delays in cul de sacs, stalling in liminal spaces of not-knowing (what John of the Cross famously called “the dark night of the soul”). Mumber testifies to these experiences of the interior life in such poems as “Fine Tuning” and “I Don’t Know How to Pray.” But there is also the ecstasy of encountering deep reality, as in “From 32,000 Feet,” which insists that (human) spirit and light energy are not merely poetic correlatives; they share the same cosmic essence in fact. I read the poem as a very hip update of 1 Corinthians 51-5:
The light of the sun
sees us all as rocks.
we will all let loose
this cumbersome carbon,
Mumber’s most candid poems, however, deal with the day-to-day of doctoring and parenting, from giving patients bad news to watching his son, a talented athlete who survived a medical emergency and now in high school languishes on the bench (or is consigned to what the poet earthily calls “garbage time”). I can feel the anguish of the father whose only recourse is to “hug him and tell him that I love him” (“Dilemma”). This sentiment, so raw and familiar to any mom or dad, is what I referred to earlier as the “cul de sac” in the interior journey. When a child is in pain, the belief acquired in tranquility that spirit is equivalent to sunlight feels hardly relevant. Sometimes we have simply to sit in the darkness.
Mumber includes a few “Covid” poems near the end of the collection. These, I think, are less successful, perhaps because they are so obviously a la mode, with some bordering on crassness. Given the many “mindfulness” pieces earlier on, I was jarred to read that the virus “from Wuhan . . . sank my 401(k)” and that “we lost all of our saved-up airline money / cancel the trip to Florence / for the wife’s 50th birthday / drive to Sam’s Club instead” (“Isolation”).
Those shortcomings notwithstanding, for me the most moving pieces are “Sweat,” where the poet comes to “befriend this fluid—wet part of myself” and “If Medicine Were my Spouse.” In the latter poem, the speaker moves into mature acceptance of full and flawed personhood. What better outcome for doctor, patient, and perhaps even country?