Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of February 25th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Rosebud Ben-Oni is an NYFA Poetry Fellow and CantoMundo Fellow, whose collection turn around, BRXGHT, XYXS is forthcoming this year from Agape Editions. Her poem in our February issue speaks to an old love of hers: theoretical physics.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I had wanted to study theoretical physics as an undergrad, but the atmosphere at the time was not very encouraging to a young Latina... (LAUGHING) so I decided not to. I studied poetry instead, trading physics for poetry.
Christina Pugh: While stuck in a snowstorm in Queens, NY, Ben-Oni couldn’t stop thinking about a recent argument she had had with her father.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: We had been arguing back and forth, my father and I, about if string theory is just a dead-end, if it’s holding the larger fields of physics and science back. And the poem just like hit me, and I wrote it actually on paper, at a diner. And the version that Poetry is publishing is pretty much the version that I first wrote.
Don Share: The poem opens Ben-Oni’s newest manuscript, a series of poems rooted in string theory. The impetus for the work dates back to 2012, when Ben-Oni started experiencing numbness and tingling on her left side, then inexplicably lost her balance in the middle of a busy intersection.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I started looking for answers as to why my nervous system was falling apart. I mean, I have an autoimmune condition, but I have to of course … I’m not happy with the science that I was provided for answers. I have to find some larger meaning, like I guess most poets do. And I started to ask myself, well, you know, is it my strings that are just vibrating in a different direction, are they vibrating wrong?
Don Share: The future of string theory became personal.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Science, for me, serves two purposes: it’s about discovery and it’s about survival. And these two things are very different. Poetry has taught me how to survive as well as how to discover; it’s given me different modes of seeking discovery. So the manuscript, you know, it asks this frightening question: are we at the end of all that we can ever know? Are we at the limits of what we can discover? Because there is just something out there that does not want us to go further. The manuscript kind of delves into what’s at stake for me as a poet, and also as a human being. If science is just wrong, if… all that we understand about human life as well is wrong.
Christina Pugh: Here is Rosebud Ben-Oni reading “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt.”
Aba says in a blizzard, fill the bathtub.
With firewood. Aba says a leaky roof
is a blessing. Provided
the bucket. To melt
snow. With fire. We gather.
All the trees in Queens. Shake
& shiver. My axe
My axe is a plastic bottle. Filled with club
soda. I wonder
when it unfreezes,
will it explode. Aba says: Light
of my eyes,
where are you getting your science.
I no longer know. I used to believe
in string theory. But the field
breaks. Too many. Rules.
& you can’t quantify nor quantum
even a drop of rain—everything’s just
too damn big. For models that would prove. The rules. Tried & still
not true. The roof is always leaking. The bathtub is a mass
grave of trees. Aba says go outside
before it’s too late. But I have. I’ve seen.
In a public bathroom I hide
with many other women
from a storm. The leaky roof
fills with cinders & once more.
A dead bird. One of us screams.
They all scream. When I pick him
up off the slimy floor. Pick
the maggots from his body.
Soon. I have the bathroom. To myself.
In public. I have an entire sanctuary.
Of sorts. To mourn. When I bring the dead
home. Aba tears at his clothes & covers
the mirrors. Won’t let me burn
the body. Says even birds died
in the Shoah’s desperate, hungry hands.
Days before the bodies were turned
to ash. Perhaps this bird too descends
from a lone survivor. We cry for
his mother. We cry for my grandmother.
Free up the bathtub & flood our home.
With rainwater. Float
a burning, empty pyre.
I say: Aba, this isn’t what we do
either. Aba says: It’s too late
to go outside. Which I do. I try.
I dig & dig.
For dirt, defying
in my hands. In snow
that doesn’t quite stick
to the ground. Night falls
& his body stays warm
under my layers
sleet & sweat.
I won’t give
in. Birds gather around me. Dark lights
against blue cement. They wait it out.
They stay perfectly still.
Right out in the open.
Christina Pugh: This poem really proceeds incrementally in almost a staccato manner. There are a lot of sentence fragments that move the poem down the page, and you can hear it in the poet’s reading here. It seems to me it’s partially the process of thinking through these rituals, bringing in a lot of elements to think about things like elegy, loss, tradition, I think, too, and how can you have a relationship with tradition when you are thinking through the scientific world, and how that interacts in your family, in your life. I like the fact that “Aba says: Light / of my eyes, // where are you getting your science.” There is a kind of dialogue going on in the poem, even though it’s not transcribed. There is a kind of back-and-forth, interlocutory feeling about this thinking through of string theory.
Don Share: Well, and that rhythm that you described is an indicator of that tension, the tension with the father, with a father figure, Aba, but also the sort of authority figure that you get in “science,” you know, the explanation, where are you getting your information. It’s interesting—in the poem, when it says, “where [do you get] your science,” there is no question mark there, there is a period.
Christina Pugh: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: There is sort of a lack ... sort of a paradoxical lack of questioning ...
Christina Pugh: Hmm … yeah, hmm.
Don Share: ... precisely from the figures you would expect to be open to questions, so that, as the poem says: “the field // breaks. Too many. Rules.” And even in that little bit of the poem, “Too many [period] Rules,” it’s almost like this poet is adapting the tensile strength to break these rules, to push tradition along. It’s really remarkable when, on the face of it, the dead bird opens up these thoughts about mourning, about the Shoah, you know, the Holocaust, about so much. What’s really interesting is that in the bathroom, the other women, sort of, go away. (LAUGHING)
Christina Pugh: Hmm, yeah.
Don Share: She is left kind of on her own with her thoughts, which have the sort of intensity and purity of scientific emp— ... she’s doing empirical thinking of her own in this poem. And then what happens is burying the bird. You get the live bird, so that at the end of the poem, it’s not just about, like, some mawkishness burying a dead bird at the end of the poem, because she says, “I won’t give // in. Birds gather around me.”
Rosebud Ben-Oni: They wait it out. // They stay perfectly still. / Right out in the open.
Don Share: It’s sort of that hard work of putting yourself into a world which is lethal.
Christina Pugh: Hmmmm. That sense of, which ritual are you going to adopt. When the poet defies the father figure and insists on burying the bird and putting her hands in the dirt, it seems to me there is a soft echo of the Antigone story, in which there is the insistence on burying the brother’s body in defiance of the king, father, patriarchal figure. And that seems to be very, very important here. I was also interested in how string theory comes into the poem as a kind of … almost an echo in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of almost an ancient lyre, the sort of strings vibrating, the poetic lyric sort of move. A kind of very interesting updating of that lyre-ness. (LAUGHING) And even as string theory is not quite sufficient, maybe the kind of reverberation of a lyre is not quite sufficient either for what this poem is doing, and maybe that has something to do with the very compelling start-and-stop-ness of the way that the sentence structure is working. I was also interested formally in how the poem moves between couplets, a two-line stanza and a single line. And then we get into the moment of the dying and dead bird. It really resolves more into couplets. There is almost a … again a kind of formal release there, when the poet-speaker defies the father figure and goes out and buries the bird. There is a kind of interesting formal resolution going on there in the poem, in terms of its commitment, then, to couplet lines. And so that formal completion provides a sense of closure to the poem.
Don Share: You can read “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt” by Rosebud Ben-Oni in the February 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Christina Pugh: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all February episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Rachel James.
Christina Pugh: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.