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: Having just finished a class on the sonnet, I’m fascinated by the ways you use and renew the form in your seven sequences. Why did you choose to write sonnets, and what was challenging or helpful about working within this form? How did you decide what aspects of the form you wanted to discard (such as regular rhyme, meter, or punctuation) and which you wanted to maintain?
RAY: When I think of sonnets I think of love. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, or “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Sonnet 116 from Shakespeare, and countless more through the ages. I wanted to deconstruct the sonnet in a way that revealed wilderness, unified, but as multivalent with discord as it is with communion. There seems to me a natural affinity inside the sonnet, offering solace even within severe propositions like the idea that our enemies are in fact ourselves. Not God as enemy. Not the other. But us, in need of repair and oneness. The sonnet as a function of the wild rather than the controlled. Back to naming: the number 7 carries motifs of forgiveness, generosity, and our responsibility for individual and collective wholeness. I wanted 7 sequences, totaling 77 poems, so that the distance we walk together in these poems is aligned with something beyond us, radiant, attracting, and worthy of the joy, affection, and calm we experience when we rest (or sleep) in the arms of a loved one. Sleep is another name for death, carrying with it the inverse… the powerful reality of being awakened. Love is an awakening. These wilderness sonnets seek to contain the notion that even in our most shadowed expressions—our great violence against the body, against cultures and peoples, against ourselves, the environment, and God—the uncontainable is alive with the numinous and nurtured by the infinite. To me, the sonnet is a small frame, elegant and muscular, with the structural integrity to give a human face to love.
The challenge of this set of sequences was to seek a form that would hold a single long narrative from start to finish, while letting each individual sonnet stand on its own in community with each of the other sonnets. The book reads as a long poem without punctuation or regular use of rhyme or meter to express a narrative of our tenacious capacity for evil while also giving witness to the inviolable nature of love. In real life, there are people whose essence speaks, and when we listen we are changed forever. Consider this prayer found on crumpled paper among the remains of the Ravensbrück concentration camp where Nazis exterminated nearly 50,000 women and over 40,000 children:
I think of my Czech family, the Czech lands another home of soul to me. My grandfather Herbert is German. My grandmother Catherine is Czech. They were married in New York City during WW2 after Germany invaded what was then Czechoslovakia. For more than 50 years on the high plains of Montana they lived a marriage our American family deeply admired.
In Europe, after the Czech resistance succeeded in killing Heydrich, the genocidal leader Hitler installed in Prague, Hitler sought vengeance. At Lidice, a village 30 minutes from Prague, the German SS killed all men and boys over 16 by firing squad. The SS took seven Lidice women to Prague and shot them in public. The remainder, one-hundred ninety-five women in all, they sent to Ravensbrück where seven met the gas chamber, three disappeared, and forty-two expired from concentration camp conditions. Of the Lidice women, an unlucky four who were pregnant were taken to a hospital in Prague, their children forcibly aborted, the women shipped empty to Ravensbrück. Using Magirus gas vans, mechanized death houses referred to in Russian as "душегубка" or “dushegubka,” the feminine form for “soul killer,” the Nazi’s gassed 82 Lidice children to death.
I don’t know if poetry can truly speak to the fact of evil in the world. I just want to be there with others who seek to free us from our propensity for violating the souls of others.
DIERDORFF: As someone who grew up within a culture that often pitted religion and science against each other, I’m interested in the unity you see between the two. You write, “i was raised on scientific understanding but found a light in her / like the light of seven days and found science one with you God.” Can you talk more about how you view the relationship between science and religion? How does art help transform our view of this relationship? What do we lose when we separate these ways of knowing or place them in opposition to each other?
RAY: I try to imagine science, art, and the numinous as interrelated, like good sisters. Here I take cues from those I love, whose thought and body of work I cherish. First, from Sojourner Truth, among the greatest Americans, one who transcended slavery and brought humanity to greater freedom: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down alone, these together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.” Second, Florence Nightingale: “To understand God’s thoughts one must understand statistics… the measure of his purpose. Nursing is an art… it requires an exclusive dedication as hard as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or cold marble compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit.” Third, I love Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, among the world’s great scientists. He was also a Jesuit priest, excommunicated for the way he leaned into the mystery of art and science as a philosopher theologian. de Chardin was reinstated after his death when others caught up with the prophetic reach of his vision. He said, “Creation has never stopped; its action is a great continuous gesture which is spaced across the totality of time… Only through purity of heart and not pure science, is one able, in a world in a state of movement… to discover with certainty a creator behind the forces of nature.” I love Maria Mitchell, the astronomer, librarian, naturalist and educator who in 1847 discovered the comet named 1847 VI: “Scientific investigations pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.” Einstein too, was unafraid to embrace the vast enigmatic nature of God in nature, science, and creation: “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details… We know nothing about [God, the world] at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never… Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source… They are creatures who can't hear the music of the spheres.”
By these words, these lives, I feel called, as Sonya called Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to kiss the earth and cry out for mercy. Called, with others, to humble ourselves and hear the music of the spheres. To steer clear of the rigidity that results in calcification. To avoid, or even heal, the cold, sterile relationships with others and with the universe that are the bane of fanatical religion and science, separate but equal forms of nihilistic dominance. Finally, these lives call me to be permeated with a resounding chord of science, art, and faith. The root of “inspired” is to breathe or blow into, as from the breath of the Divine. To be more willing to breath in life and breath out death, as is our natural condition. These artists, these scientists, this family of people are those with whom I hope to share sisterhood, brotherhood, and friendship forever.
When we separate reason and mystery and place them in opposition to each other, in effect we are fractured by mother loss and father hunger. We are no longer close to our mothers and fathers. We are broken of heart—heartbroken—and in need of a restorative love that returns us to a family, not one made of severity and absolutism, criticism, defensiveness, withholding or contempt, but one made of greater love, freedom, autonomy, health, compassion, wisdom, and tenderness than we imagined possible.
DIERDORFF: I was encouraged by the space you make for uncertainty and doubt in these poems, instructing yourself and the reader, “if you comprehend God it’s not God” and “do not foreclose on doubt or reify faith.” The question of how to live within uncertainty seems even more relevant during the current pandemic when many of our systems and routines have been upended and destabilized. What advice would you give to someone living in this state of physical, emotional, or spiritual uncertainty? How can we learn to experience uncertainty as beauty and blessing?
RAY: My wife asks me, and perhaps the world, not to foreclose on doubt or reify faith, and I find it an inevitable verity, a stingy one to dislodge, how whenever we humans, people of faith and anti-faith, people of logic and mystery, logos and eros, wilderness and science, we who are essentially complex, multilayered and nonbinary, seek to own knowledge rather than to listen, give honor, and embody humility or awe… inappropriate power ensues. Power for self, over others, against love, in denial of sacredness. Augustine’s City of God is not a city of colonizing power; it is defined by the humble notion that we cannot know love or life or God in totality. Nor can we know hate, or death, or anti-God absolutely. Significantly, we cannot know the fullness of what lies between these poles with any surety either. None of us can claim complete knowledge. Uncertainty is the gift that displaces ego. Therefore I’m drawn to Augustine’s ironic injunction, both scalding and funny in light of an authoritarian idiocy that threatens to make idiots of us all: “If you comprehend God it’s not God.” Such knowledge humbles both the atheist and the person of faith, an intersectional doubt-faith continuum I think we all encompass in our bodies. For me, this leads to what we have the opportunity, or honor, to listen to in order to become more whole. Beauty, goodness, and truth, in the house of philosophy: in other words, the sublime. From the New World Encyclopedia (www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sublime_(philosophy):
The sublime, in aesthetics (from the Latin sublimis, [looking up from] under the lintel, high, lofty, elevated, exalted), is the quality of greatness or vast magnitude, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation. This greatness is often used when referring to nature and its vastness.
For Augustine, beauty was a category with no opposite. Rather beauty was affirmed by benevolence and goodness in Creation. In wilderness, within and without. To me the things I’ve held in my hand confirm Augustine’s vision: a wand of timothy grass, eye teeth from the mouth of a bull elk, the hand of the beloved, a poem. Ugliness, not beauty’s opposite but rather its distortions, is embodied in repugnance, disorientation, dissolution, disfigurement, disharmony, disintegration. In art, science, and life, I believe these are all elements beauty absorbs. Fission made whole by fusion. In the moral realm, the weight of such distortions can be grave in my life and the lives of others, and if I’m not opposed to sacredness, it can be said the weight of such distortions harms my soul and the souls of others. Therefore, to be made whole I need healing. When I ask forgiveness of my wife or daughters, when I authentically make atonement or make amends, I find oneness. In this sense, fusion has the capacity to heal the ways I fracture my life. In the Garden of Peace and Friendship at the memorial site of the Lidice massacre you’ll find more than 100,000 roses sent by countries from around the world. The Czech people asked the children of Germany to plant those roses hand in hand with the children of Czechoslovakia.
Working with Trinh Mai, the insightful painter whose art creates such dignity in the pages of this book, reminds me of what it means to live in community, to honor the family by having the fortitude to walk together toward the night of bereavement and emerge together into the new dawn. Trinh’s influence on my poems will be lifelong. I’m grateful to her and her husband Hien for helping me find the beauty of life below our individual and collective trauma. Thank you Trinh and Hien!
The magnitude of grace in everyday life, in circumstances met with atrocity or tempered by small moments of fate, astonishes me.
Each of us, in my opinion, must face our own wind nature, vaporous as we are, sometimes fire-like ending in smoke, ever-disappearing, and to where? This humbles me. That said, in understanding that we are in many ways, nothing, I also must realize (as life directs me) that we are also in many ways something—the body given on behalf of others, in love, in sacrifice, in the common daily occurrences of tenderness that transpire in the richest or most mysterious and lasting, enduring forms of love. These forms grace us I believe, and of course, we begin to understand what it means to grace others in the same ways, ego-less, not self-embedded but transcending the self and its tendency toward self- and other-hunger, its need to consume, harm, dominate, become apathetic, lack drive, or lack life. Therefore, the necessary essence of ourselves, the notion or some might say truth of giving yourself for the greater life of others, the foundation of which is the simple kindness of gazing on another (the face as infinite, in the terms of Levinas), of beholding beauty and speaking more beauty into life, or embodying more beauty with and for others. Rudolf Otto's philosophical (and now cult classic for artists) The Idea of the Holy, written in the liminal phase between WW1 and the advent of Nazism in WW2, speaks to me here, along with the great feminist thinkers bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, among others.
In this way, if our lives are poems, which I believe they are, created by an essential atomic crux beyond us, and meant for the infinite, then our smallness or near uselessness in the scope of space and time becomes instead a vital and necessary essence just by living, but also as we give breath to beauty, love, and more of the infinite. Just as poems do. It’s hard to tell, from this perspective, which is the better poem: your hand in the hand of the beloved, receiving the other, extended to the enemy, aligned with a healthier self... generating in its own small fashion greater health, wisdom, appropriate or authentic sacrifice, freedom, autonomy, and mature love in the world... or the poem you’ve written which someone later takes into their life for the better, or which Life itself takes into greater Life even if no one reads that poem. I think of Dickinson, again: “Not knowing when the dawn has come, I open every door.” I think of Isaiah, and the hope I hear in him: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon you.” Among the words I've had imprinted on the heart for so many years now for so many vital/necessary reasons, leading me to love more and live more, given to my wife Jennifer and our three daughters Natalya, Ariana, and Isabella, and to a genuine encounter with others. So this keeps me from over-thinking about the vapor-like quality of our existence and helps me see it as something to ingest, as in eating our own humiliation, and how good that is, to move us into the graceful realization that when we seek what Life asks of us, we often find a simple resonance: responsibility to Life, to Love, to the Divine Mystery, to Light, from the atomic and subatomic perspective, having ingested or come through or been pierced by light in our darkness. Not darkness as enemy or split from us but understood and absorbed. Not our lives or our physical poems as binary but as “containing multitudes” in Whitman’s words, then back to Milosz, a finding in his poems that lets me sit in the chair and be taken up into or down into or within Love again: “To celebrate life you must swallow all of death.” Certainly, the Christ ethos from the beginning to now is evoked here, but no person of authentic soul or the lesser (but not less important) expressions of soul (namely intelligence or body or emotion) would believe in dominating others through the Christ ethos as dominance is anathema to the soul of Christ, the Anima Christi, as the ancients referred to Christ’s soul. After all we go through—every trauma, violation, degradation, desolation—the soul of Christ awakens me and draws me back to the good wilderness where I encounter the face of the beloved again.
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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September 14, 2020
Very extensive interview. I’m enjoying it, so far!