Reviewed by Aaron Brown (Windhover contributor 2013, 2014, 2015)
A few years ago, poet and fiction writer Shann Ray entered my life at a moment when my creative juices seemed at a crossroads. I was somewhere in the middle of a long summer between my undergrad and MFA program, when I was starting to realize just what I had signed myself up for as a writer and whether I would be able to continue to channel these energies both as a poet and a writer of faith. That summer, I kept on coming back to American Masculine, Ray’s wonderful collection of short stories coming out of the northwest (winner of the 2010 Bakeless Prize). Here, I first encountered the grounded and muscular writing of Shann Ray, his prose poetic and his themes cutting quick to the core. Stories of the disenfranchised. Narratives of the forgotten fighting for life. Writing wholly tied to place and its people’s experiences: Native American, small-town poor, big-city businessmen. Shann Ray’s impact on me led me to do a few quick searches online, and after a brief email exchange, I was on the phone with a writer I had never met, whom I have yet to meet, and yet a person I feel I know so well through the honesty and heartfelt nature of his work.
Shann Ray’s poetic debut Balefire (Lost Horse Press, 2014) is a collection that embodies its title—growing from bright glowing embers into raging poetic explorations of human depravity, the longing for human relationship, and the flickering brilliance of forgiveness. Shann Ray customarily sets up the scene (just as he does in his deft fiction) with intricate stories of human struggle, failure, and redemption. He then upsets our expectations through deft line breaks and suspended syntax, ending the poem in a place wholly unanticipated. Take his poem “My Dad, In America” which first appeared in Poetry. Here, in few words, Ray traces the narrative of his father journeying to take to “the old Highwalker woman… two deer, a gopher, and a magpie.” A journey his father takes with both strength and gentleness, a paradoxical conception of masculinity so essential to Shann Ray’s work:
Your hand on my jaw
and that picture
of you punching through snow…
Ultimately, the father’s humble offering should remind us “there is still blood for forgiveness” in a day and age where racial misunderstandings and injustices abound.
Elsewhere, Ray utilizes sections in his book to craft longer narratives centered around the power of human relationships within the family structure—the pain that separates the individual parts and the love that joins the broken fragments together again. In “East of the Bear’s Paw Mountains, North of Milk River,” Ray presents us with a series of poems (individual poems or a long poem in sections? I haven’t yet decided) that unfold the narrative of a father who shoots himself in the woods, a mother who raises her son with words of Scripture, and the son who is left to make sense of the loss and love that lingers with him:
he falls toward sleep
as one who has come from the earth
and shaped it with his hands,
he hears his mother’s voice…
Ultimately, the voices linger with us, providing us with some sort of meaning when faced with death, when faced with landscapes that are as physical and geographical as they are reflective of the human psyche. This is the experience of Balefire and everything that Shann Ray throws himself headlong into.
If there’s one thing Ray thoroughly embraces, it is the intimacy and celebration of marriage. In poems such as “Night Over the Sapphire Range East of Missoula,” “Invocation,” and “A Quiet Poem About Marital Sex,” the poet burns with Donnean ecstasy where “in the quiet of our bedroom / silver birds fly / from your mouth / and break me all the way down.” This intimacy traced throughout the collection serves as a kind of glue and yet another layer to be added to his conception of geography as love. John Donne really would be proud.
We see Ray’s desire for new poetic territory as evidenced in his long, flowing titles that act as road maps of a larger map of human experience: “Mystic Lake, the Beartooth Range” and “Up Going to the Sun Road”—all wonderful poems in their own right. It’s as if the poet through his titles is attempting to direct both speaker and reader, to provide some semblance of orientation within seeming disorientation.
Additionally, Ray explores new landscapes of form. His prose poem “In the New Country” operates within a different formal space as his other work—grounding the material within a block paragraph more akin to his short stories than his long-line (and sometimes short), free-flowing verse. Still, however, we experience his writing in as poetic and charged a way as we see in whatever genre he chooses to operate in: “The sun has gone and there is near silence… and the faint word, like a child’s, of those whose breath, impatient…. takes leave to await them in spirit.”
And it is this sense of lingering spirit that a reader comes away from Balefire with: a writer’s spirit of such vitality and strength, a searching voice that in the depths of human struggle demands forgiveness, and it is this voice that should remain with us. Shann Ray is a voice we should be paying attention to—in his poetry and prose—a writer who upsets current trends of abstraction, who stands tall on the shoulders of his influences, and a poet who will relentlessly leave you with a bit of his strength as you continue on life’s journey.