Check out our week-long series on Shann Ray and Trinh Mai's collaborative work, Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God.
DIERDORFF: I was overwhelmed and amazed by the number of names that appear in this book, both within the poems themselves and in the acknowledgements and dedications. Subatomic particles, cattails, cowslips, orbital bones, the umbilical cord, saints, bison, artists, activists, and victims of genocide are all named with attention and care, often appearing in lists that function as litanies or prayers. I was struck by the tension between your poems’ obsessive naming, their desire for all of existence to be named and known by God, and the speaker’s haunting question to God: “do we really know // your name.” How is naming an act of love or “fusion” in the face of violence and fracture? As a poet, how is seeing and naming the atomic, material world related to your desire to know the name of the divine?
RAY: I love the oceanic vision you’ve brought to these poems, Hannah, thank you. The tension of being named, of naming, and of Divine or ultimate naming, is a tension I’ve been haunted by in many good and fearful ways throughout my life. How does one become an authentic person, living life for the depths of life as van Gogh beckoned, or understanding the fear we must carry to do justice to the gravity of the world, as Dickinson knew? Emily said, “I am afraid to own a body / I am afraid to own a soul,” and from Vincent, “You must grasp life at its depths.” I find such naming essential to our shared humanity; it appears brightly visible or remains beyond visibility, like singular rays of light among a light-filled or dark-imbued existence, wrought with loneliness, bracketed by pain, devotional, celebrational, sacrificial, met with hunger and thirst, unsanctioned, redemptive, free. Like a mountain in the dark or a river at dawn. Sometimes, even when dark on the surface, made of light unseen by the human eye.
Who can know the name of God? Who can know the beloved? In some ways the answer is no one. In other ways we whisper, all. Everyone can know and be known. Mercy tells us so. My wife whispering my name in a prayer at nightfall. My daughter placing her hand on the back of my head. Love, we might say, is unknowable and completely known.
The lists you mention are physical. Often in composing these poems over the years, mostly in quietness at night, in conversation with my wife, keeping the poems close and wondering really if it might be best to keep them between us, we kept returning to naming. We have three daughters. They share the middle name Alexis. Their mother named them that way, uniting them. The meaning is daunting, and I remember being afraid of that naming when she first mentioned it to me. Alexis means “defender of mankind.” I felt the weight of it when it passed from her lips. Too much, I thought, too much responsibility. For who can carry the world, humanity, mankind? Well, a counterintuitive answer was right in front of me. My wife carried each of them. She carried humanity and gave humanity life. This life-giving happens everywhere. Everyday. We had two miscarriages between the birth of our first and second daughters, and the family still holds these mysteries with bereavement braided by a sense of hope. Our daughters especially imagine these loved ones, unknown to them, family and intimacy on the spectrum we can’t fully see or know, but at the same time know very well, with a limitless love. I think of Mary Szybitz and her naming of angels unknown to us. I think of the angel of miscarriages.
Consider the first few stanzas of her poem, “Invitation”:
Naming shapes our lives. In the spiritual exercises of Ignatius, a tradition of 500 years, a silence that seeks to encounter the soul of Christ descends on us. Here we encounter the spirit of life, the spirit of death, and the mysterious notion of God in all things. This helps me find the grace to hear the true names of others. Lodgepole pine. Devil’s Club. Glacier lily. Mountain thrush. Red-winged blackbird. The cheekbone of the beloved. The fist of my daughter as a baby, wrapping my index finger. Open fields from here to the horizon. Montana, a home of soul. I do believe, as you mentioned, naming is a form of fusion, a kind of love set against fracture or fission. A unified cohesion within and beyond fission, dissolution, disintegration. In my experience a great power of life resides in that unified field. Again, the question, who can name God?
Novelist Paul Lisicky reminds me that to name God is to be separate from God. Ignatius of Loyola humbly seeks God in all things. Layli Long Soldier, in Whereas, secures the truth of the Oglala Lakota spirit world in the midst of American genocidal dislocation and extermination. Katerina Rudcenkova, a poet of my own Czech heritage, speaks loneliness and abiding love in daily life. This in the context of the long aftermath of the German genocidal onslaught of WW2, the Russian invasion after the Prague Spring, and the refreshing unities of the Velvet Revolution. I find the human crucible, the Divine crucible, equal to the crucible of dark matter and abundant light in the universe. A good place for a poet to listen. What we hear is often excruciating. What we hear is also often lovely, fluent, and given to the kind of courage that restores us and gives new life.
Fission is defined as “a splitting or breaking up into parts.” Nuclear fission releases energy by splitting atoms. A breaking apart into smaller, more powerful energies that multiply exponentially through chain reaction. Fusion means “a merging of separate elements into a unified whole.” Nuclear fusion is the “union of atomic nuclei to form heavier nuclei resulting in the release of enormous amounts of energy.” A coming together into greater gravity, greater density, and greater force. Fusion powers the sun. The sun powers the earth. Light powers the universe. The light given from our eyes to the face of the beloved is the light of our DNA and the endless star fields above us. Light powers human life, the human body and human heart. On this continuum, when one does not prohibit the possibility of the infinite, I believe that which is sacred calls us to consider how light powers the soul.
Of course human hypocrisy, be it bound by religion, anti-religion, agnosticism, atheism or apathy, spits in the face of love, seeking to degrade or diminish the soul, and has done so from the beginning. In my estimation, my own hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of others cannot overcome ultimate love. In essence, fission is incapable of obliterating the radiance of fusion, the reality of light powering the universe, or the uncommonly merciful experience of authentic love.
The energy released in fusion or unification is many times more powerful than that released in fission or fracture. In naming this scientific fact, a philosophical, moral, and theological truth is also named. I think of this truth as mercy, forgiveness, atonement. Elements undeserved, but which attend us perhaps the way angels do. Ancient Christian mysticism assigns such movements to the breath of God. Before the mystics, Job averred, “The Spirit of the Lord has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” In daily terms, I experience this fusion as grace. My wife’s touch when I’ve asked her forgiveness. My daughters singing in the evening, a harmony that alleviates burdens and gives peace.
DIERDORFF: Because your poems contain such breadth and specificity of names, reading Atomic Theory 7 was an experience of continual learning for me. The reader is not the only person being taught in the book, however. Much like Li-Young Lee’s “The Undressing” where the speaker is instructed by Wisdom during an act of lovemaking, the speaker of this book is taught as he converses with his beloved about God. Although this book is dedicated to “my wife and God,” it collapses the divide between the personal and the cosmic, intimacy giving birth to an outward-facing, self-giving radiation of knowledge and love. I keep returning to this marriage of the romantic and the didactic—as a professor and a poet, how do you think about the relationship between intimacy and teaching? How is the experience of vulnerability necessary to learning?
RAY: I love Li-Young Lee so much. His desire “…to pull the metal splinter from my palm” is a healing desire and does something to us not only physically but existentially. He said every poem is a “descendent of God.” This echoes your kind understanding, Hannah, of these poems as an outward-facing, self-giving radiation of knowledge and love. What is it about intimacy and teaching? I believe love is labor, learning, living, dying. I believe love shuns, and thereby transcends the pedantic, authoritarian, colonizing dominance we too readily project onto others. I’m reminded of Franz Wright’s unassuming and potent architecture concerning the fear of death (and life?) in his poem “The First Supper”:
Here the Divine is “You.” I find Wright’s naming of the intimate You atomically charged. In his work, the anatomy of the human form and the anatomy of the universe is one anatomy. The word “if” acts as a fulcrum or hinge through which the soul passes—breath, soul, life—and we then must bring ourselves to the poem in a vulnerable way, without barring either doubt or faith, without performing a rigidity that keeps us from the love of science, art, and faith as one love, both rational and mysterious, female and male: nonbinary, unified, interwoven. The word vulnerable comes from the late Latin vulernabilis, from vulnerare, “to wound.” There is a wound that heals us, in fission a breaking apart that is absorbed or “healed” by fusion. I don’t fully understand the properties of love, but I’ve encountered them, and both as a psychologist working with families and a forgiveness and genocide researcher for the past three decades, I’ve been humbled again and again by the knowledge that every wound we can conceive of, every wound inflicted and suffered, has the capacity to be healed by love.
Check out Part 5 for the final installment of Hannah Dierdorff’s conversation with poet Shann Ray on The Waking now!
Born in Spokane, Washington, Hannah Dierdorff received her BA in English from George Fox University and is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Christian Century and The Worcester Review.
Trinh Mai is a second-generation Vietnamese American visual artist who examines the refugee and immigrant experience, then and now. Through a vast breath of media, she helps tell the stories of we, the enduring People, focusing on our witnessing of war, the wounds we’ve survived, our collective need to heal, and the custodial responsibility to which we are heirs. She is an alumnus San Jose State University and UCLA, actively exhibits, and has works taking residence in public and private collections internationally. Seeking hope within humanity’s struggle in war and hardship, she has exhibited in support of numerous humanitarian organizations, including the Friends of Hue Foundation Children's Shelter in Việt Nam and the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia, also partnering with Oceanside Museum of Art, MiraCosta College, Community Engagement, and Bowers Museum in developing socially engaging projects with survivors of war. Her artistic journey has been documented by TAO in Honoring Life: The Work of Trinh Mai, which brought home the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the 2016 Viet Film Festival. Mai is a recipient of the University of Washington’s prestigious Walker-Ames Fellowship, and continues to visit numerous academic and arts institutions to engage the community in creative storytelling and to speak about her art practice. www.trinhmai.com
American Book Award winner Shann Ray’s work has been featured in Poetry, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Ruminate, Big Sky Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Diode, 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, Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, and The Souls of Others. He lives with his wife and daughters in Washington and teaches at Gonzaga University. www.shannray.com
With a foreward by:
Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD candidate in English Literature at U.C. Davis. Her poems have recently appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, and other journals. Her two poetry collections Fossils in the Making (Black Ocean) and Diurne (Tupelo Press) were published in 2019. She was the senior poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine from 2014-2020. More at kristingeorgebagdanov.com or @KristinGeorge
Image by Trinh Mai.
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