The Intimate and Atomic Other:
Fusion in the Poems of Shann Ray and the Art of Trinh Mai
Review and interview by Ellen Welcker
American Book Award winner Shann Ray’s work has been featured in Poetry, Esquire, McSweeney’s, High Desert Journal, Poetry International, Narrative, Prairie Schooner, and Salon. He spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana and has served as a scholar of leadership and forgiveness studies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ray is the author of Atomic Theory 7, Sweetclover, American Copper, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, American Masculine, Balefire, and Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity. He lives with his wife and daughters in Spokane, Washington, and teaches at Gonzaga University
In Shann Ray’s profound collection Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God, we are not six lines in before we find ourselves knee-deep in our own brutality: “wild with beheadings / old guard of the master / order still in effect in our atomic streets.” It is 100 pages later before the tender admission: “for years she was the only one / i showed these poems to / i prefer it that way / no one reading us.” I conflate these two excerpts because they exemplify Ray’s gift for the atomic—for spinning a cohesion from a million, far-flung shards. These are intensely intimate poems, as the title suggests, and yet, they are stunningly unselfconscious. As writers work through the pain inherent in these days, for the reader it can at times feel voyeuristic. Perhaps this is a necessary component of readership in a time when we need to sit with our complicity, pain, and collective grief, but I have found myself wondering amidst the outpouring of writing that takes on racism, misogyny, abuse, our national (and international) crimes against humanity, environmental emergency, and on and on — what the books coming out of this time will look like as we reckon with and move through all of this outpouring. Atomic Theory 7 is one such example. Ray never turns from the horrors of genocide and atrocity or couches them in something "palatable"; rather it is his deft handling of the oneness, the absolute inextricability of violence, abandonment, loneliness, and love that is transformative. These devastating spare poems astonish me with their individual and collective power, the way atoms or seeds or zygotes humbly contain great mystery, trauma, beauty and redemptive power—nothing short of the universe.
Ray is no newcomer to the field of big questions—this is his life’s work—as a scholar of leadership and forgiveness studies, a writer across genres, and as a human in relationship with others. In all of his work, he invites us to plumb the depths of ourselves, to see what we are capable of—fission, fusion, great harm, great love. In the poems of Atomic Theory 7, Ray moves seamlessly between violence and tenderness, and his unsentimental relationship with “she” and with God is utterly lacking in pretense or judgement. It wants only to seek how we, as humans, might alter our collective course toward something that, like atomic theory itself, is made from all our tiny particles, in their innumerable, unknowable combinations. Perhaps love can be the catalyst.
E: One of the many things I love about your collaboration with Trinh Mai is how you both draw from the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. Your poems are full of the flora and fauna of this region—yarrow, elk tooth, eagle, bear, bitterroot—and Mai credits the Pacific coast for the stones in Reaching for Things Unseen, and specifies that it is Pacific Ocean water in That We Should Be Heirs. Can you talk about encountering each other’s work, and what it was like to work together on this project?
S: I’m stunned by the natural beauty and healing essence of Trinh’s art. Her ability to place us in moments of absolute loss while somehow also healing us with the capacity for love, affection, the moral responsibility of our care for one another, and true generous feeling, keeps resonating with me and the poems I’m working toward even now after this book has already come about. In her paintings she includes the physical world, and the inclusion is arresting: stone, leaf, cotton, petal, thread, Pacific Ocean water, images of those we’ve lost, the imprint of her own tears. With the book’s cover Trinh magnifies an image of one of her grandmother's liver spots and frames it as an atomic blast that moves through a vapor-like image of a bird in flight. The oneness of our intimate and universal loves is felt even more than seen. “The women of my family over five generations,” she says, “the Spirit moving toward the sun.”
We first met each other when the poetry editor at Ruminate, Kristin George Bagdanov, placed a sequence of 11 of the sonnets from Atomic Theory 7 alongside Trinh’s paintings and her artistic healing work with military veterans. Then as now Trinh’s vision shifted something in my own vision, helping me see the inherent curative nature of art in addressing, giving witness to, and naming unnamable trauma. With the honor of getting to know Trinh and her husband Hien, I began to see how the body, the body of the world, of wilderness, of people, is both a vessel to bear unavoidable and unaccounted trauma and a vessel of multivalent fusion capable of complete healing, reconciliation, restoration, and atomically speaking, resurrection.
For example, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and is commonly referred to as the essence of light itself. Hydrogen is essential to life; it fuels the sun. Hydrogen is the element with the symbol H and the atomic number 1. Hydrogen is what powers the stars and comprises essential elements of our own DNA. Its most common isotope or form has one proton with one electron orbiting around it. A photon is a quantum of light (a discrete quantity of energy), created when a hydrogen atom absorbs energy/absorbs other photons, thus destroying those that are absorbed, and then emitting in turn, more photons. In numberless interactions throughout the universe a hydrogen atom absorbs another photon or two or three or more with the right energy to jump up to another energy level. After each of these “excitations” of the hydrogen atom, the electron could recede back down one or more steps, emitting photons along the way. If a photon with sufficiently large energy gets absorbed, this can even unbind an electron from its nucleus, a process called ionization. These crippled hydrogen atoms are no longer able to absorb or emit light. That is, until they manage to capture a free electron back into a bound energy level. When a hydrogen atom is crippled, it is only resurrected by this capturing process. In the atomic realm, this happens throughout the universe innumerable times per millisecond. In this sense, not just artistically but tangibly, the universe is both eternally dying and eternally resurrecting. As a poet, death awakens me, and life humbles me. Admittedly I have no real grasp of such mysteries. As Einstein said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. God is subtle but not malicious. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—it is the source of all true art and science.”
E: Abandonment is such a devastating root concept in this work, and yet there is the secondary meaning: abandoning oneself to pleasure, or joy, or love, all of which are entwined themes in this work as well. How did you come to the concept of abandonment, rather than another, similar one, like loneliness, or pain?
S: Oh, thank you for that uncommonly refreshing read of abandonment. Abandoned to pleasure, joy, and love. Somehow for me this fits with the nature of the destroying and resurrecting gone through by the essential elements of the universe and within our DNA. Who can say what truly gives us breath, what inspires? What carries us from holocaust and returns us to love? How I came to the notion of abandonment in this book was through Rilke’s Book of Hours. That and many years spent now as a researcher of genocide and forgiveness. At Gonzaga University, where I work as a professor of leadership and forgiveness studies, I watched a play based on the Book of Hours which primarily involved dance and other forms of very powerful body movement multilayered below the words of Rilke. I love Rilke’s work. I feel graced to share his Czech heritage. He was born in Prague. My family is originally from Starý Plzenec, about an hour from Prague. I also feel a distinct difference between what I see as his vision of a beautiful God who abandons us, and my own questions regarding an intimate God who desires deeper and more authentic intimacy, more humane relations, and more devotion to the marginalized. I wanted to write a book of poems about human responsibility, not blaming God (as we perceive God, however limited our understanding is) for distance or harm, but recognizing we so often embody distance ourselves, and that perhaps I turn away from intimacy, human or Divine, because it is too much for me to bear. I have to acknowledge I am often incapable or too wounded to bear the numinous. Too crippled of heart or damaged of soul. I am in need of resurrection. Atomic Theory 7 considers the question of suffering. The poems asked me to open inwardly into the possibility that it is not God who makes us suffer, who creates war, trauma, abuse, or bodily, emotional, mental, and spiritual harm, but rather it is we ourselves who harm and abandon each other.
To me, this is an even more devastating and largely inescapable reality.
Perhaps it is not God but us who abandon and harm the world, ecological and personal desperation being so pervasively and inescapably global.
E: You write in ii.5, “the mature atheist believer understands kindness / while the hard believer atheist has contempt and below / contempt cruelty.” As someone who might find herself occasionally existing in or around one of these categories, can you open them up a bit?
S: I’ve always admired and tried to emulate your transparency, Ellen. I see these categories not so much as binaries but a continuum or mosaic that exists in each of us, in our individual and collective humanity/inhumanity, forming a spiral or quantum dynamic. The more rigidly defined I am, the more contempt and cruelty I embody, whether my affections be atheist or theist; equally, the more loose or undefined I am, the less cohesion toward moral or intimate responsibilities to myself and others, let alone toward enemies. Who can claim to know the divine or the profane, the sacred or the secular, in ourselves or others or in the universe? Some of my favorite atheists are among the most kind people I know, others are among the most toxic and wasteful of humanity; likewise, some of the most religious or spiritual people I’ve encountered are among the most giving and self-sacrificial, and others are among the most deranged and ill-formed in both intention and impact. I find this easily proven with even a cursory look at human history and daily life. Of course, in a more humane sense, all of us are, I believe, comprised of both good and evil; hard to measure, even more difficult to predict. So for me, it is not religion or atheism or other epistemologies that are the problem with humanity, it is our unimaginable capacity for hypocrisy, for lying to ourselves and others in order to enact self-preservation and other-deprivation; and it is not atheism or spirituality that truly define our capacity for collective humanity, but rather the grace and mercy to transcend ourselves in order to love and serve others. For me, I humbly hope in what my mother tried to teach me when I was a boy: the simple, profound understanding that God is love.
Atomic theory is a nearly unlimited space of science, art, and imagination. Max Born’s original text details the nature of the stars in scientific terms, as well as the finest granules of the substructure of atoms, and in the end, he points in his final sentence toward the notion that no one can fully know the mystery of life. Fission and fusion are interdependent in many ways, fracture and unity. I love the juxtaposition of the science of atomic theory with the art of intimacy, how fracture and union play out in the stellar expanse, locally, in our bodies atomically and subatomically, and in the cherished touch I experience when my wife or daughters hold my hand. To me the number 7 symbolizes ultimate forgiveness, ultimate fusion, and ultimate love. The book is comprised of 7 sections of 11 sonnets each: 77 poems that seek to honor something the book of Isaiah refers to as "the garment of praise" instead of the spirit of despair.
E: We share a love of wilderness in all its realms. There is so much wilderness in the world, in our treatment of one another, in the human heart, in what is unknown and unknowable to us, and yet I find these poems unspeakably comforting. How do you do that? Just kidding, but actually—I’m interested in your craft choices, not to use punctuation, and very little capitalization, and sectioning and serializing the poems without naming them. How did you endeavor to hold the overwhelming content and scope of these poems? What other considerations were you working with to balance the enormity of the project? Is this where atomic theory comes in?
S: Yes, it is where atomic theory comes in! I wanted to hold close, in a good embrace, the unknowable aspects, the simplicity and complexity of where we are wilderness, wild, as well as subdued, domesticated, foolish and wise, free, enslaved, autonomous, monstrously didactic, able to serve, and ego-centered, wanting only to be served. The physical wilderness grounds me: trillium, deer’s-head, orchid, fawn lily, the blood of a child or the skeleton of an elk, bone-fanned after a few winters, the unknowable expanse of night, the light of morning. The human wilderness is no less concrete: my will to subdue others, their will to subdue me. Our collective will to transcend ourselves into love. The lack of punctuation and capitalization in these poems is in deference to the only capitalized, if quietly pervasive silence/voice: God, however we may comprehend the incomprehensible. An unfathomed essence, but an embodied care, peace, strength, kindness, and love. I want to hold these and be held by them. I want to give them away freely, and see others held and beheld.
Atomic theory seems just the right form of infinite to give comfort.
Truly, I believe we are held and beheld. Even when it appears otherwise.
E: I marvel at the lack of voyeurism I feel in reading poems addressed to your wife and God. I’m grateful to experience such profundity and intimacy without feeling I’ve transgressed—can you talk about how you manage this?
S: My wife is a giving, fierce, beloved person. I wrote these poems in conversation with her, mostly at night when she slept. That silence/voice is an embodiment of God to me; her uniquely infinite self in communion with me, elegantly, physically, with dignity and power. After all we’ve been through, after everything the human family has endured, generation to generation, I feel such abiding grace. The poems emerged from there, and were kept quietly between her and me for a very long time. In many ways, I think that quietness attends readers, meeting them intimately, enjoining a mutuality I did not foresee.
E: Do you understand atomic theory? ;)
S: On the level of science, sometimes. On the level of mystery, not at all. ;)
But not knowing is a comfort.
I find that which we can never fully know gives deeper life. In the same sense that we can never fully know a loved one, the unanticipated abundance of the mystery is essential to our well-being.