The new book
Ten years in the making, Radiation King, the second full-length collection by poet Jason Gray, takes us to the beginning and the possible futures of the atomic world we created at the start of the twentieth century. In a time when the Cold War has heated back up, his intense lyric poems engage a past filled with Civil Defense and radioactive quack cures and a future that could bring a radioactive wasteland or limitless energy. Gray’s poems explore the world from the smallest atom of hydrogen to the giant Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula and find that the only thing that will save us is love for one another.
In his Radiation King, Jason Gray writes, “Atoms really are / Perfection: / tiny / movers, brilliant gods,” but he might as well be describing the poems in this awe-inspiring collection. Each line, each word, is “tipped with fire.” Radiation King speaks to darkness and light, to the past and the future, to myth and fact, to faith and science, to ruin and hope. When I say the poems are true, I do not mean they are factual, though there is certainly science and history at work here. I mean they are to be believed.
Apocalyptic, cautionary, but ultimately redemptive, Jason Gray’s poems force us to face up to years of natural and human degradation committed in the name of progress. “If only the metal / Would melt then maybe so would time,” the poet writes, but of course the time doesn’t bend to our wishes; rather, it inscribes our faces and minds with the truth of our deeds, especially those we’d wish to erase. Indeed, these taut poems praise the concreteness of the world—its physics and our physicality—with intelligence and music that are hard to find these days, when so much of contemporary verse seems beholden to overwrought conceptual designs or ready-made narratives. If you wonder what happened to the unassuming voice of the poet full of awe and doubt, or yearn for poems resembling, to paraphrase another poet, matches lit in the dark, then Radiation King should be at the top of your reading list. Jason Gray’s work is the wave that “flashes its white / Smile / Right before it sweeps / You under.” And this book, a small masterpiece of love and devotion to everything that makes the universe fantastic, is that apple that the poet wishes to see “rise into the tree.”
Letters to the Fire