Check out our week-long series on Shann Ray and Trinh Mai's collaborative work, Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God.
I first read Atomic Theory 7 in March while the cherry trees were breaking into blossoms outside and we all began sheltering inside, watching the pandemic multiply on our news feeds, the red dots blooming like mold on maps and diagrams. My uncle was hospitalized with the coronavirus in Colorado. My mother was sewing face masks and planting tomato seeds in Washington. In Virginia, I swam through each day’s silence, counting my breaths when I ran, counting the hours I couldn’t sleep, counting the numbers of infections and deaths across the country. As the pandemic upended my routines and cancelled all plans for the future, I found myself in a space of isolation where time seemed to cease. Into this emptiness, the poems of Shann Ray and the artwork of Trinh Mai appeared as a gift, reminding me that I am not alone in my experience of uncertainty and grief, teaching me how to walk through the wilderness of human loss and love.
In many ways, Atomic Theory 7 is a movement through a time such as we are now experiencing, a time where our understanding of our own mortality and interdependence are heightened, a time where immense loneliness and compassion intertwine. The book responds to such an encounter of fragmentation in a sequence of sonnets in conversation with the beloved and with God. Like a chain of prayer beads or an abacus, the sonnets count their way through the hours of the day from “early dark” to “night,” the seven sections each broken up into eleven unpunctuated meditations. Each section ends with photographs of art that are both memorials and visions, the book oscillating between grief and hope as it grapples with the violence that fractures humans’ relationships to each other and to the divine. As these poems lament genocide, nuclear warfare, domestic abuse, slavery, racism, cancer, and colonialism, they also evoke the psalms and prophets in their questioning of God’s presence or absence in such injustice. Part jeremiad, part love song, Atomic Theory 7 is witness to the unknowable radiance of God, what Ray sees as “the unity between darkness and light.”
Two paintings, each illuminated with haloes of light, open this collaborative work, Mai’s words and art announcing the book’s endeavor: “It may be that one of the most burdensome endeavors in life may also present one of the most extraordinary opportunities—to arrive in a place of darkness, and somehow hold the confidence that light dwells somewhere therein.” Light and darkness are motifs sustained throughout the book not just as artistic tropes but also as material phenomenons and spiritual realities. Ray explores light’s spiritual and scientific inner workings primarily through a study of atomic theory, struggling to understand how nuclear fusion generates light and life for our planet and simultaneously powers the destructive force of hydrogen bombs. The difference between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, between splitting and bonding, illuminates Ray’s understanding of our relationships to ourselves, each other, the earth, and the divine: violence is revealed as the force that separates and severs and love as the force that binds us together again.
By locating questions of faith and doubt within the atomic, these poems enact a theology where the divine resides within instead of above the physical world, believing that what’s unseen, whether subatomic particles or the presence of God, generates the light and love that animate our lives. What’s unseen thus enables us to see and intimately connects us to each other, each fragile, beautiful body sustained by the same material and spiritual realities. The opening sonnet claims “the body is the city,” and this revelation of the one as the many, the personal as the communal, reaffirms the interconnectedness that is at the heart of the book’s vision for love. It is this love that turns Ray from the intimate address of the beloved to an expansive concern and care for all of humanity. It is this love that sustains Mai as she grieves the loss of family members and the deaths of her people during the Vietnam War, honoring the ways her own life depends on the courage and grace of past generations. It is this love that allows both artists—Ray and Mai—to see vulnerability as a space of healing, a space where the body can touch and be touched, a space where we open ourselves to be changed by sharing our individual and collective pain.
In the past two months, I’ve carried Atomic Theory 7’s vision of love with me as I’ve inhabited spaces of loss and new life, struggled to envision a future beyond the pandemic, and questioned how I can care for others while in isolation. Ray and Mai offer us examples of how to live in a period of uncertainty such as the one where we now find ourselves, not through prescriptive statements but through generously welcoming us into their embodied experiences of faith, doubt, grief, and love. The book’s movement through a day is a movement each of us must repeatedly make as we walk through light and darkness, yet despite the loneliness that often colors these hours, we are reminded that we do not make this journey alone. Atomic Theory 7 ends at night, closing with Mai’s art installation “Quiet” that remembers the faces and words of the dead, and within this darkness, the poet’s final words resound: “your beauty our night all light.” Beyond understanding or knowing, we’re left with the divine in the darkness, life in mourning, love in sorrow. We’re left with Ray’s plea: “o make us / aware of our infinite / and atomic obligation / to each other” and with Mai’s quiet conviction that “time mends all things.” We’re left holding the twin hands of grief and hope, gathered together, responsible for each other, awake to the potential of each touch for devastating brutality or infinite tenderness.
Return tomorrow for Hannah’s insightful conversation with artist Trinh Mai and poet Shann Ray.
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 @KristinGeorgeB.
Image by Trinh Mai.
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