Atomic Theory 7

Atomic Theory 7

Atomic Theory 7, a collaboration in the truest sense between the fiercely-imagined poems of Shann Ray and the sacramental art of Trinh Mai, considers a most uncommon union between the lover and the beloved: the body at rest and war, in beauty and peace, in violence and despair, in the finality of darkness and the atomic fusion that beckons new life. The unity between dark and light in Atomic Theory 7 is open, composed of untold force, robustly unknowable, and intimately attuned. Even the most forbidding trauma is not in vain. From the ashes of holocaust, love becomes an essential human gift found not only in casting one’s eyes upward, but in visceral, physical gestures: a healing hand on the chest of friends and strangers, a loving embrace between enemies. The breath of the holy over the wristbones of a child. A touch of the numinous at the zenith of the shoulder blades. God in all things. Breath. Whisper. Song. Here it is not the Divine who commits genocide but people, and in the heartrending aftermath, we are given the grace to meet one another again, kiss each other in peace, and go forth fused with atomic responsibility.

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When Poetry Meets Spirituality, featuring collections by Christian Wiman, Sarah Law, Andrew Calis, Shann Ray, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, and more.

In one way or another, the poetry collections discussed here grapple with, revel in or simply bear witness to that which all great art wrestles with: What is going on, and (explicitly or not) what does God have to do with what is going on? [These] collections reviewed by America [poetry] editors are a sample of the God-haunted and the God-hunted literary artists who work out their spiritual, intellectual and emotional conundrums through lyrical compositions that both reveal and obscure, offer insight and challenge commonplaces.

Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God, by Shann Ray (with art by Trinh Mai)

Shann Ray’s riveting collection is perfectly complemented by the sacramental artwork of Trinh Mai. The two artists’ work and style intertwine naturally as they both address themes of love, violence, grief, divinity and more. Ray draws on his experiences living and working all over the world, in particular those places where he has witnessed war, genocide and abuse.

With each memory revisited in verse, Ray confronts the fact that he knows very little about the God who so captures his curiosity and imagination. He is not discouraged by his lack of understanding, though; throughout this collection, the devotion and determination in his writing only increase. As he continues to be puzzled and shaken by the sheer brokenness he observes, he becomes ever more resolute in his insistence on writing about a kind of love that can be profound, reconciled with the pain that is an essential part of reality.

— Joe Hoover & Molly Cahill, Poetry Editors, America



Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God, by Shann Ray: “In this collection of sonnets, Gonzaga professor and poet Shann Ray explores the question of suffering and ‘the violence of living’ through poetry with illustrations by artist Trinh Mai. Ray juxtaposes examples of ultimate violence and ultimate forgiveness in an attempt to explore the capacity of human goodness.”


“History can be read as a series of separations of death and life, light and dark. The intention behind that separation is sometimes holy, but often violent. Haunted by the space between these seemingly incompatible conditions, this collection conjures again and again the light that has the power to both destroy and redeem. . . . To live without hope of life is a burden no person can survive. The distance between the atomic and subatomic, between sun as life-giving and sun as life-consuming is the distance between the universal and the personal. That the same sliver of matter can both make and unmake life depending on a certain slant of light, the position and velocity of bombardment, is the contradiction that energizes this devastating collection of poetry.”

– Kristin George Bagdanov, Fossils in the Making

“Gonzaga University professor Shann Ray’s latest book of poetry explores questions of suffering, love and healing. “What does ultimate forgiveness have to say to ultimate violence?” he asks in Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God. Ray’s new work is a compilation of seven groups of 11 sonnets on interpersonal and national violence interpolated with illustrations painted by California-based artist Trinh Mai …their work is one in the context of Atomic Theory 7. The bulk of the poems came with Ray’s research into intimate one-to-one violence all the way up to international levels of violence, as well as research into atomic theory. His previous works have been featured in publications including Poetry, Esquire and Poetry International. Here, Ray attempts to answer the question of love and healing in the wake of ultimate violence.”

– Stephanie Hammett, The Spokesman Review

“Shann Ray weaves science, theology, intimacy, personal and global pain, along with stirring visual art from Trinh Mai and ends up with ultimate love. This book of poems is brilliant.”

– Rob Fairbanks, Immanuel Church

“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 un-self-conscious. In Atomic Theory 7 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 like atoms or seeds or zygotes they humbly contain great mystery, trauma, beauty and redemptive power—nothing short of the universe. Ray exhaustively, lovingly interrogates us all to plumb these 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.”

– Ellen Welcker, The Botanical Garden

“What a gorgeous book this is in every way. The poems. The prose. The art. The whole together. All becoming one long poem, one sustained love song, prayer, rapturous encounter.  How joyful The Beloved must be to hear these poems ringing across time and space.

o make us

aware of our infinite

and atomic obligation

you spoke light good light

we are anyway the dogwood blossoming bloodmark on our forehead

hands and feet our side

your kisses

bless the harm we do

to the body

o city of God

bless the harrowing fists

I would be copying every line if I tried to recount every miraculous moment in Atomic Theory 7, despair and joy, all at once absolute holiness.”

– Melanie Rae Thon, In This Light

“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.”

– Hannah Dierdorff, from Ruminate

“A beautiful depiction and statement of what I have learned from history, physics, art, theology, and community. It’s a deep and wide faith eschewing polarities, but seeing the Light as a spectrum both/and particle and wave. “In the world, but not of the world.” I hear echoes of Dostoevsky, Buber, Bonhoeffer, Day, Gutierrez, and even Pope Francis. Also, Rumi, Rilke, Auden, Eliot, Roethke, and Oliver.”

– James B. Hunt, Rising Fires