Book Reviews

Remember The Day I Discovered

Mark Spero | Contributing Writer

If This Is the Age We End Discovery
Rosebud Ben-Oni
Alice James Books, 2021
Winner of the 2019 Alice James Award

Rosebud Ben-Oni’s collection If This Is The Age We End Discovery, taking on the largest questions about space, time, and the reality of our existence, enters an underappreciated lineage of work that mixes science and poetry.  It may seem that science and poetry are unrelated, but writers have long been attracted to the sciences: Lewis Carroll and Omar Khayyam were mathematicians, and Nabokov studied butterflies.  In his book on string theory, Brian Greene finds value in this combination, writing that β€œshifting the sharp spotlight illuminating science from the purely rigorous numerical and cognitive to one with a softer more ambiguous glow of human sensibilities is enormously potent.”  In her collection, Ben-Oni humanizes the study of physics, from stars to particles: how can we fit into a world we cannot see, does it matter if our reality is not as real as we once thought, and do our deep feelings of loss, joy, and grief mean anything when placed against infinite space?  This collection gives theoretical physics a human touch, allowing us to grapple with the most mysterious pieces of our universe.

The book begins with a preface poem, β€œPoet Wrestling With The Possibility She’s Living In A Simulation,” a sprawling exploration of the concepts, and formal experiments, that Ben-Oni uses throughout the book. Lines begin from the center of the page with each succeeding line moving closer to the left margin, giving the ideas a recursive feel, like we are returning to something familiar.  In one section, Ben-Oni shows her knack for adding humor to explorations of existence:

                                                                      If nothing else
                                         can we not all agree
                                    hummingbirds win Most
                        Fabulous Simulations.

Even if they are the secret guards,

                                          & their tears
                             the anti-virus software
                  injecting all those broken
1s & 0s into our hearts.

& surely in one timeline they are the gods themselves ::

                                                The superlative whoest

of engineers

Our human vision grapples with the possibilities of the universe, finding that no matter the origin of a hummingbird, it is still beautiful, possibly holy.  Poems reach backwards across the page to challenge the flow of time while using the double colon, as it is used in mathematical logic, to indicate comparison. Ben-Oni jumps from individuals to the universe, from timeline to timeline, and her formal choices blend poetics with scientific notation, crafting a hybrid poetry of theoretical exploration.

In the center of her collection, Ben-Oni continues the β€œPoet Wrestling” series, while using formally regular constructions to take on new issues.  She includes some surprising references to art and culture, including Rick & Morty, Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, Bob Ross, and The Distance by Cake.  In other poems, she grapples with her Jewish and Mexican heritages, mixing Hebrew and Spanish, to investigate the placelessness of a global, multicultural existence.  These poems build portraits of strange, late-capitalist lives that must confront the contradictions emergent at the biggest and smallest scales of existence. These placed based poems build back to cosmic issues, but this time she uses religion to tackle the unknown.  For Ben-Oni, religion and universal theorems are reaching for the same things: answers to the most basic questions of our existence.  These poems are prefaced by large block Hebrew letters that that Ben-Oni explains emerge from:

The Chassidic idea of β€˜Three Heads of the Crown:” א֢׀֢ב— Efes, which means β€˜to nullify’ or β€˜to conceal’ & the highest head (Radla); Χ’β€” Ayin, the sixteenth letter of the Hebrew Alefbet, which means β€˜nothingness”; & ΧͺΦΉΦΌΧ”Χ•ΦΌ β€”Tohu, which means β€˜Chaos.’” 

Ben-Oni adds that Efes means zero in modern Hebrew, along with her own theory:

Poet’s proposal: responsible for Dark energy, vampire bunnies & insomnia; insatiable lover; enemy of mathematics & elegant equations; Creation’s Twin; presents Nullification properties as possible Transformation (rather than destruction) of the quantum & the β€˜real’ worlds; reveals Itself as the singularity of a black hole; does not abide any law; changes the riddle.

Every poet is in some way proving something, but Ben-Oni gives us her thesis directly, and in a poetic paragraph, setting us up for her most complex analyses.  Ancient ideas meet small, human problems like β€œinsomnia” and insatiable love.”  She takes chaos, concealment, and nothingness as pathways to powerful celestial forces, god and black holes. The following, final poem feels expansive even as it contracts to a conclusion.  The section is titled β€œ{Post} :: Lude,” and the poem is titled β€œPoet Wrestling With Reverse {Re-Reverse} String Theory.”  These titles may reference The Big Crunch hypothesis: universal entropy will reverse, forming a singularity similar to the universe before the Big Bang.  More broadly, they ask what happens after the end, of the universe or our lives, and why do we try to understand our existence through any kind of unified theory. 

 β€œPoet Wrestling With Reverse {Re-Reverse} String Theory,” is a broken and staggering poem that delivers lines built like atomic equations. β€œIt’s like this:  If I die :: I’ll give birth to something    ::: to nullify.”  Each piece is a step in the proof that death is not really an ending, but a beginning, a new existence.  Elsewhere, words are multiplied by the power of other words: β€œYousearching.”  This could mean you to the power of searching, or it could be more of a footnote, an explanation of what the you is constantly doing.  Our existence spreads out into greater and greater multiplicities, more and more timelines.  On the final page, Ben-Oni pushes the reader out into the possibilities of space, but with new tools to discover where god may live today, how endless space still contains something human, and ways that we can survive our futures:

: :: sling-

{shot}​​ faulty & error :: : 

    was it :: {in would be} :: ever :: real 

 β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹  ​​​​ is there {am next} & will we

 β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹  ​​​​ :: sing ::

​​  {o perhaps You
​​ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹ β€‹β€‹β€‹β€‹  & You & I​​ 
will until

      :: Greater than ::


o o o what if

{what if}

These words expand across the page, bringing us back to the prefatory poem’s feeling of multiplicity.  The formal equations have broken apart while maintaining some constructions, allowing Ben-Oni to reveal that universal questions contain a human voice that says, β€œo o o,” asks β€œwhat if,” hopes that we can meet and β€œsing” in the unknown future, and believes that our missteps and unanswerable questions are not problems but places where we reach for and maybe experience something greater than ourselves.

Extreme distances grow closer in Ben-Oni’s collection.  The scientific becomes the poetic and the quantum is full of our own concerns and emotions.  Brian Greene saw the importance of making science a part of artistic practices: β€œWe may . . . find that the art world’s scientifically-inspired works will . . . prepare us for the next step in understanding the universe.”  Ben-Oni prepares her readers, giving them a glimpse of how our beautiful and painful humanity rises into the endless universe, revealing the godliness of the great unknowns contained out in space and within ourselves.

Mark Spero (he/they) is an MFA and MA candidate at the University of Montana. They received the 2021 Madeline DeFrees Prize, selected by Phillip B Williams, from the Academy of American Poets, and have received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Community of Writers. Their work can also be found in the American Journal of Poetry and Poetry Northwest, and is forthcoming from Pleiades, where they were a finalist for the Prufer Prize.

Rosebud Ben-Oni is the winner of 2019 Alice James Award for If This Is the Age We End Discovery, which received a Starred Review in Booklist and was a Finalist for the 2021 National Jewish Book Award in Poetry. She is also the author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019) and her chapbook 20 Atomic Sonnets, which appears online in Black Warrior Review (2020) as part of a larger future project called The Atomic Sonnets started in honor of the Periodic Table’s 150th Birthday.