The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Shann Ray

atomic theory--poems to my wife and God



the body is the city

an elk’s ivory bridal teeth

urban wild


wild with beheadings

old guard of the master

order still in effect in our atomic streets

we wear duct taped shoes to survive the storied ghettos

of liberation the nucleus of the atom the collarbones

of a universe each day stained at the neck

where we inhabit the heart of fear but don’t believe we end

alone anymore she and i hearing our names

called in the city that is our garment

of praise before dying


the city is black

and brown where men are

chafed strafed shot and my friends

blake walksnice cleveland highwalker

prince jones and k. silk russ

know where love abounds

three dead one still alive receiving

influence bonhoeffer listened

to the church he loved

in harlem and went back

to germany to be killed (hung/incinerated)

for all his love you’ll find his torso still there

in dachau in cruces half gold half

burned half buried half risen

             bless the harm we do

to the body

o city of God

bless the harrowing fists

we bludgeon each other with

in the living body

the beak of a crow in the shale over hell roaring plateau

is wounding is dissolution of tissue continuity but gently

bless the body o God returning

the hearts of the fathers

to the hearts of their children we need

forgiveness holy Christ we need atonement

the good kiss of our fathers on the cheek

            of our daughters and sons


you witnessed you walked

with us among genocidal rape

in rwanda the croat serb siege and when we beheld

hitler stalin mao and infinitesimal quarks the building blocks

of hadrons dead millions atlantic american christian slave

trade dead millions north african islamic slave

trade 35 million deaths low estimate the native american holocaust

much more than 6 million the jewish shoah palestine cambodia the congo

the cheyenne the northern cheyenne with white wounds inside the thighs

you are love we are abandonment sexual assault abrasions

on breasts anus genitals each person you made we love

you we live with you o die with us o know us by name

the alpenglow in each birdwing is lovely

as the stars you named each one of us you named us named us




everything held together

like water o God

tail fan of a mountain jay

john said life is the light

of both women and men

sunset ends day ends and here she begins

anew her graceful arms her voice

a troth we keep under stars

where our doubts fulfill our need

toward horizons shrouded in mist

and our experience of one another

as we enfold each other

            is the memory of you

            being glad with us again


                                                            you didn’t abandon us

we abandoned you

we abandoned each other

velocity the separating factor

between bullet penetration and a touch

on the skull we have eyes but don’t see

our bodies cityscapes of metal and light

the great loneliness a reminder of how

we die like winter dies

ribcage of a lynx to robe the beloved

you have always loved us

in death in shadow

you are there where our nakedness is you love us her and i 

we love you loving our bodies with your many-colored love


fatherless fathers are the figureheads

of the world wars going on every day

the master recursively conceiving slaves

swollen by violence in the national park

above jackson hole the tine horn of a moose

through the eye of one who wanted photos


the body absorbs natural forces

except forces which cross the limits

of elasticity or resistance

bruised pierced john jesus johannes josef maria

mother jones came crying out

from the wilderness prepare

the military industrial prison complex

prepare the wind of God blow wind blow


                                                            even in darkness

I witness your pleasure o God

the light of morning not yet

on her face

our faces touched by you and gladness

more physical than we know

less temporal more present

more contained in the breath

we breathe

we only live only breathe

each day her hair down over me

the lace at the window emblazoned 

by moonlight embroidering us silver she and i

in the dark still sleeping before dawn




she and i love you

o Lord our strength

fire from your mouth

consumes us

burning coals kindled

in your mouth our dark skin

where you parted the veil at the door

of our room saying white calls dark

dark and white white the hangman’s rope

o move us through the house off the front

stoop thick darkness under your feet

outside to where you ride angels down soar on winds’ wings

make darkness your covering lightnings in abundance

the canopy around you the rain


out of the brightness

of your presence

come clouds and lightning

you speak thunder

from heaven

and return walking

light on your feet

entering the house again

to recline with us

and we say o meadlowlark sing

and bitterroot bloom light our lamp

turn darkness to light humble us

humble my enemy my enemy me

fine as windblown dust




SHANN RAY's work has appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Northwest Review, Esquire, Narrative, Fugue, Poetry International, McSweeney’s, and Salon. He is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, and winner of the American Book Award, the High Plains Book Award in poetry and fiction, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize. His books include American Masculine (Graywolf), Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (Rowman & Littlefield), and Balefire (Lost Horse). Because of his wife and three daughters he believes in love.



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