In writing my poetry collection, I approached a long-held question: Why doesn’t the world of the large reflect the world of the small? That is, why doesn’t the world we live in look like the quantum world?
My answer: Nouns versus Verbs. One is real for us and one is The Real Real (as I call it). In our everyday world, nouns are seemingly everywhere: cat, car, can. They have periods of stationary-ness. But in the quantum world, in The Real Real, everything is Verb. For instance, the electron does not orbit its nucleus like a tiny particle, going around and around the heart of the matter, so to say, but exists in multiple places at once in a sort of cloud. Particle physics, for another example, is not the study of particles per se, but the study of fields, and those fields are not immobile, static areas of openness; they too were/are/will Verbing. They are moving; they are doing. They are constant.
I got to thinking: If physicists and poets seek to unconceal, restructure, and challenge the way we think, just what is responsible for the concealing? Why does the quantum seem to OutVerb our world of the everyday?
In the years between 2012 and 2019, as I worked against “concealment” and tried to find a way past my failing frameworks, I came upon something very strange. Something I’d known since my childhood. Something that had seemed a word in passing, though I’d known a history behind it that wielded a frightening potential—a potential that is more action than thing, more Verb than Noun.
The word in Hebrew: Efes.
Efes is the modern Hebrew word for “zero,” but in mystical Jewish texts also means, “to nullify, to conceal.” In If This Is the Age We End Discovery, I propose that Efes is one of the fundamental forces in the universe not yet understood. Efes is responsible for, among many things, Dark Energy (or perhaps it is Dark Energy), which is accelerating the expansion of this universe. Efes is the enemy of mathematics and elegant equations because we can neither produce nor perceive “true” zero; even in a vacuum, there are still tiny, tiny particles flitting in and out of existence. And to even speak or think about zero is to speak about something. So Efes remains the ultimate mystery we will always brush against, but never fully grasp.
Personally, I find this thrilling. In exploring the ideas of concealment and nullification through Efes in If This Is the Age We End Discovery, I found my very way of thinking about frameworks—whether faith, science, or my own body—changing, though I still believed in that one great love. When writing those poems, I gave myself over to the journey rather than trying to imagine where it ends, or to find one absolute truth or answer. But when my marriage fell apart, just as the pandemic was beginning and I was working with my editors on the last edits of the book, I had to rethink the last section, which opens with a quote from the 1972 Soviet science fiction film Solaris:“You mean more to me than any scientific truth.” Originally that “you”—and the whole of the collection—was centered on the one person I believed in when I’d lost faith in everything else.
Why doesn’t the world we live in look like the quantum world?
The last months with that person were filled with a silent, heavy dread that seeped through my limbs and up into my chest and head. Grief gripped me with a searing, ever-tightening cord that wrapped around my neck. I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time. Mornings were shrill with the rabid bells of endless sirens echoing off to Elmhurst hospital. I wept every day, not knowing what to do, as we were supposed to be sheltering in place. In the end, friends came over and pulled me out. I was in very bad shape, and very, very sick.
“Now I’m completely nullified,” I remember joking to one of my best friends, Diane, who I stayed with for over a month. “Maybe I shouldn’t have written the book. No more transformation. This is it.”
Last year, I thought my body was shutting down. I thought it was the end.
But it wasn’t.
Looking back now, especially considering the circumstances of the pandemic, I am astonished by the care and love from friends who stepped in, over and over, and stood by me as I continued to work and teach virtually. I also realize the completion of the book itself was a process of transformation guided by Efes; that while I had lost the love of my life, when the last framework of my life had been nullified, the resulting grief shook me free of the need for such certainties. This is not to say I don’t believe in love anymore; I do, greatly.
While ordering the poems of my book for the last time, I found a sort of electron-like cloud in which Efes shook me from the linear everyday (that wishes to shoot me straight) into a simplified and cohesive Noun, locked inside a universe that is not what it seems. It shook me hard, and then dispersed me into the quantum world, where I lost a sense of being solely defined by my identity, as something confined by the time and place in which I wrote the book. I gave up the very idea of having a center, and became a particle-wave, a force seeking interaction. A wild unplace where I’m no longer trapped by those trying to make a measurement of me. To make me completely still so that I am only one thing and robbed of all my dimensions, movement, and possibilities. By the end of the book, I, the speaker, am part of that much larger force, one in which I am The Real Real and I am in numerous places on a vibrating, sentient field, all at once.
One beautiful idea in Everett’s interpretation is that there is one single wave function, and only one, for the entire universe. A wave function is a mathematical expression that presents all the possibilities of a particle, including where it is and all that it is; in other words, that a particle isn’t limited to being in one place at one time. So that when something happens—say, the cat does escape out of the laundry basket by himself one day—all the other outcomes within the wave function do not disappear. Hugh Everett the cat is still contained in the laundry basket in another world. Both events in this case happen, and both worlds are real, and perhaps in another world, back in the early aughts, a young would-be physicist poet named Rosebud Ben-Oni is having lunch and “a slosh of sherry or two” with Everett, just as he did back in 1954 when he came up with his first ideas for the Many-Worlds Interpretation while a student at Princeton. In this other world, Everett lives and lives, for I can’t imagine anything else for him, one of the greatest Verbs to ever be.
And in that world, Rosebud is coming up with her own interpretation of Efes as Dark Energy, expanding our universe in order to transform us, and I can imagine Everett’s playful skepticism, our bickering, the laughter. No doubt one of us would walk off from the bar, the fancy party, the faculty dining room, probably sneaking out a filled Tupperware container or two in a fury, upset with the other. One of us would walk away, and one of us would write to the other the next day, not wanting to waste time with petty things. Not that we’d spare the other petty things, just not those petty things. And say too, in these golden years of his, that he starts to write poetry again.
I’m thinking of this while looking for the cat I took in, and in this world, with this version of him and this version of me, this cat Hugh Everett never stops crying, even when I think he has everything he needs. Which is how he ended up in the bottom of the laundry basket with little me hoisting all seventeen pounds of him out. He goes limp in my arms.
Everett’s quantum mechanics should have only been the beginning. But I live in this world where the physicist died at fifty-one, found by his son, who later confessed he never really knew his father very well. Hugh Everett of this world, who’d asked for his remains to be thrown out in the trash.
How we were robbed of his future work. What we could have and should have become. The distances traveled, the distant satellites rung and received.
I only know what I say in this world, and what he said in this world, and that is my grief.
Is grief a bridge?
How strange yet to still remember that one fine, summer morning that she—I’ll always think of her as a she—slid through me and I lost her and bled her out in my then-husband’s arms, and it seemed she was all over him. It did not happen quickly or all at once. Our would-be child was all over us and he held me and it was raining outside, and I felt that she would never stop pouring out of me, oh my beloved, oh endless swimming further away from me. It’s perhaps there, in our shared tragedy, out of this body of mine now, that I still do love him, have love for him, believe his and my electrons know no bounds.
Is grief a tide that never quite pulls me in?
Or is it a wakefulness as strong as silence filling the first day of spring, when we choose to walk a treeless crumbling street and all heaven is falling on the buildings, washing them clean? The morning after my miscarriage began, he bathed me before he was sure it was okay to wipe away what I never quite knew I was possible of—and, in the end, was not a possibility.
Is grief a premonition from a future self? Is it a stone or lifeline cast from worlds unknown?
There are a million things I should be doing. It’s well past midnight. Somewhere, in another world, I’d yet stake my life that Hugh Everett the physicist is waiting for me at the bar, sherry in hand, dear Hugh, so that he might tell me of our next plans, perhaps a foray into a Zero-Point Energy summit. In that world, otherworld-me keeps him waiting a bit before it’s a bit too long. And I also imagine out there, somewhere, Hugh writes a poem, as he did in his youth, but otherworld me will never see this until he passes. Otherworld me doesn’t know just how lucky she is to know him as Hugh, as only Hugh. And although I’ll never know Hugh Everett in this world and although we might be living in a simulation, is life not worth it, because grief and the probability of grief make us move forward?
Is grief not a gravity to which we constantly readjust, a mysterious force from which we kick and reach forward?
Rosebud Ben-Oni is the winner of the 2019 Alice James Award for If This Is the Age We End Discovery, forthcoming in 2021, and the author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (Get Fresh Books, 2019). She is a recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and CantoMundo. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schooner, and Electric Literature, among others. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog and recently edited a chemistry poetry portfolio for Pleiades. Find her at 7TrainLove.org