“May Curiosity Never Die”: A Micro-Interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni – curated by Lisa Olstein

Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is the winner of 2019 Alice James Award for If This Is the Age We End Discovery (March 2021) and the author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS(Get Fresh Books, 2019). Her chapbook 20 Atomic Sonnets,which appears online in Black Warrior Review (2020), is part of a larger future project called The Atomic Sonnets, which she began in 2019, in honor of the Periodic Table’s 150th Birthday. 

She is a recipient of a 2021 City Arts Corps grant, a 2021 Queens Arts Fund grant from the Queens Council for the Arts, a 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Poetry Society of America (PSA), The Poetry Review (UK), Poetry Daily, Tin House, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ecotone, The Missouri Review, The Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Adroit Journal, The Southeast Review, Poetry Northwest, Arts & Letters, North American Review, among others.

In 2017, her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. Her poem “Dancing with Kiko on the Moon” was recently featured in Tracy K. Smith’s The Slowdown. She has an essay forthcoming in Halimah Marcus’s new anthology HORSE GIRLS(Harper Perennial, 2021) alongside Carmen Maria Machado, Adrienne Celt, T Kira Madden, Maggie Shipstead and others. She’s part of the QUEENSBOUND project, and took part in The Onassis Foundation’s ENTER exhibition. She lives in New York City, where she teaches poetry workshops at Catapult, The Speakeasy Project and UCLA Writers’ Program online; she also writes weekly for The Kenyon Review blog.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Rosebud Ben-Oni: In If This Is the Age We End Discovery (Alice James Books, 2021), I rethink how we approach the idea of “discovery” in relation to not only the future, but also the past. Memory is an ongoing transformation itself; actually, everything we see now is in the past. There’s a processing delay that occurs as visual information passes through our eyes to our brain. It might not seem huge— we are talking milliseconds— and our brains deals with this delay by filling into those gaps so we don’t perceive them. So, go ahead and look up, and know whatever you see is something you are seeing in the past, those precious nanoseconds too it takes for light to bounce off the objects. As a poet, particular a Jewish poet who’s culturally entrenched in the idea of memory, the idea of the past is always as past continuous within me. So while remembering lives within me past continuous, I wish my writing to take me and the reader to a future continuous, even if I’m restricted by five senses and cannot fully apply my everyday life to the wonder of the quantum world. A Jewish poet who is not necessarily a faulty witness, per se, but one who realizes reality (whatever the hell that is) or “realness” is, scientifically speaking, always one step (or more) ahead of her. She wishes to discover what she cannot in full.  By she the speaker, of course, I mean, me, the poet.

Within this past continuous is also the repetitive nature of cycles both in nature and human nature.

So it challenged me to rethink discovery beyond what I’ve been taught about colonization and conquest, or via formulating elegant, fundamental equations in theoretical  physics as a way to “solve” the universe. I’m more concerned with exploring sheer curiosity and unfolding the many processes of questioning itself. What does it mean to be unknowable, epistemologically vs. ontologically? (More on that later.)

The speaker is not looking for an answer to larger questions (like The Theory of Everything), or discovering a single “guiding star,” but rather what it means to express the journey itself, and I suppose in that way she is a witness, but as Hugh Everett deemed in the Many Worlds Interpretation, the observer is part of the larger system, ie with the Schrodinger’s cat experiment, the cat can be both dead and alive because the observer is entangled with it, on the macro scale, as part of his own experiment. This is to say on a philosophical level the act of witness is not passive. 

What I choose to write about, for instance, say it’s about the Shoah, I’m directly doing this because I don’t want atrocities to be forgotten as I’ve inherited them, on the macro level, as a Jew. Same thing with repeatedly saying Hugh Everett’s name: I don’t want his name to be forgotten. Memory must be a future continuous. Just as I am fascinated by multiverses, simulations, and theoretical particles that continue to go unproven, poetry allows me to explore these ideas through, say, strange syntax and spacing on a page. Poetry is a large step in shape-shifting the languages that shape our understanding of each other, our world and the universe. For me, “discovery” is not about possessing or taking over; it’s about curiosity itself. 

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

RBO: One of the poems that appears early in the book,  “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt”, reveals the speaker is grappling with a world she no longer knows what to do with: with the possibility that we are living in a simulation looming over her, this poem in particular shows the scientific method breaking down, the frameworks we believe so solid and unchangeable and timeless falling apart, because we aim toward discovery. She loses faith in religion, science, medicine, family, even HaShem (one of the many names for God in Judaism): these frameworks that are supposed to offer some answers, supposed to keep evolving, even when we don’t. They are supposed to be better than their creators. Discovery is a slippery slope: we want to evolve too while also not forgetting past mistakes we made, which for me as a Jew, is important in terms of the Shoah. Turns out, at least for me, I have no choice BUT to remember I’m entangled on the macro level, the everyday. The Shoah lives in my memory which, at the same time, becomes a past continuous within me, one that finds me most in my times of current and unrelenting doubt and trials of faith. I have no answer for what happens next. All I know is: at least the speaker is never passive. She fights to understand her role, even when she becomes a sort of vessel, to the end. There is peculiar joy, even when she has completely lost all linear understanding. 

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

RBO: Three things in particular: (1) revealing the connections I’ve seen in Judaism and Theoretical Physics; (2) exploring the mystical Jewish idea of Efes (“Nullification/Concealment”) as a power of transformation and (3) reinterpreting The Three Heads of the Crown, which are found in Kabbalah and are described as guiding “forces” or “light” In my version, The Three Heds are: Ayin (the 16th letter in Hebrew) which here means “Nothingness;” Tohu, which means “Chaos;” and then, both of these are directly under the highest head, the most unknowable head, the Radla, Efes. 

In more traditional Kabbalah, the Radla is not Efes, but the first three Sefirot, a much sublime unknowability. 

At the time in my life when I began writing this book, mired in so much doubt, I began to think about the idea of Efes as “Zero”; now, in the Hebrew alphabet, every letter has a number, but there’s no letter for Zero. And while Efes has come to mean “Zero” in Modern Hebrew, in mystical Jewish texts, it means “to nullify, to conceal.” It was this idea that resonated very much in my personal life: I was being nullified in the collapse of those frameworks (science, family, theoretical physics) as well as illness, and I could not find my way back to HaShem. It feels very strange to call God “God” in English, and it feels even stranger to speak of doubt and HaShem in an interview, in plainspeak, outside poetry, the kind I write, because for a very long time, my unshakeable faith in HaShem was my unshakeable faith in myself. 

It was only in poetry, when doubt began to overwhelm me, and I felt myself disappearing, that I felt “safe” in exploring what was happening to me. Because I wasn’t searching for answers. I was exploring the moments as they were seemingly happening to me, translating these transformation, onto the page. And those ideas behind The Three Heads, that is my interpretation of The Three Heads of the Crown— Chaos, Nothingness, Nullification— began to transform me, in many different ways, as I explore in the book. 

But it’s really through Efes as Radla— that is, the highest head, the most unknowable—  that I began to think about knowability vs. unknownness, human limitation vs. something which I claim keeps changing the riddle. That is to say, I don’t think Efes is epistemologically uncertain, that is— we as humans lack the ability to know something’s realness or reality because of our cognitive abilities. I think Efes is completely unknowable— ontologically— that is, it is possesses inherent unknowability of its sum total reality due to its very nature. In traditional Kabbalah, the Radla encompasses all possible realities— everything that came or will come into existence has roots in it. I believe this too for Efes as Radla— only through nullification. 

Lastly, I see many connections between Zero as Nullification/Concealment (Efes) and dark energy in theoretical physics as well as the existence of black holes, but I’d rather people read the book first.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

RBO: Well, this answer might seem somewhat adjacent, but what I do propose is that even if we are living in a simulation and/or the frameworks of our understanding of nature and the universe eventually collapse or idle in some epistemological state of neutral, life is worth it.

There are a lot of elegant equations out there that have attempted to explain our universe— that is, the idea of “beauty” in math and physics, which is a real thing— and much of them haven’t so much as failed us, but are so impossible to test that they can’t even be proven wrong. I don’t think the universe itself cares much for elegant equations; as I said before, I think there’s something out there— whether it’s Efes or another force— that continually changes the riddle every time we get close to answers, or in the event we get too comfortable. We are meant to evolve. Something is challenging us, playing us, fooling us, concealing things from us, not out of malice, but so that we (and others, not just humans, it’s arrogant to think we are the only ones) evolve.

But evolution is painful. Perplexing. Frustrating. It’s slow to take. I believe sometimes, though, something comes along to light a fire under us. It’s how people have and will respond that correlates with our next unfolding. I think about the fires lit beneath my own feet, those that come not from this great external force, but from humankind. I think of the cruelties and fears within those fires.  Often I’ve met those who were not kind to me as a young girl and later as a woman. But they did not break me and could not stop me from dreaming big— no one could take the music from me. I believe there’s something within me that emerges in my work that reveal itself a great of love of living and being alive, which are two separate things. I never gave and will never give up on life itself, and no matter what happens, life is worth. And I say this truly believing we are living in some sort of simulation. I’ve heard many a powerful and well-thought-out argument against the theory, but none that have changed my mind. I only ask: do we even truly understand what kind of simulation that might be, one in which we do have autonomy? And when did it all start?

Like anyone naturally curious about the world, I’m trying to go back to the beginning— the blank page, the absence of our known universe. Just how did it begin 14 billion years ago? And why? Did it really begin with the Big Bang or Big Bounce (a competing theory)? The problem is that when the Big Bang/Bounce happened, that’s when all space, time, energy and matter actually came to be. So how can we even use the science— the study of nature— to find out what came before nature itself? It’s puzzling— and revealing the science itself has limits. All that said, of course, the study of nature will most likely evolve as we (or rather A.I.) will do, and so who knows what we might find out....

For all the questions that I ask in the book, and those that go unanswered, the speaker is kept on her feet and “running,” so to speak. She isn’t allowed much peace. She loses one large chunk of her life after another, and by the time she reaches the end, it’s just her, Efes and HaShem. And the “final” question she asks in that last, long poem is the most important one.

The last words in the book are an echo, a manifestation of sharing in stakes, a proof of witness, a refusal to give up. 

They form a question not seeking linear answers. Or answers at all. 

They evoke the possibility to dream.

May curiosity never die.

I know my own will outlive me in the quantum world, alongside the better parts of a rebellious, roguish force that’s already transformed me.