The Museum commissioned this special poem by acclaimed poet Rosebud Ben-Oni to honor the lifecycle of Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones. Here, Ben-Oni reflects on her experience of the Garden of Stones, and of writing the poem, When You Are the Arrow of Time.
Read the poem, and watch Rosebud Ben-Oni read it, below.
Threads of Stone :: On Why I Wrote “When You Are the Arrow of Time“
I was twelve years old when I happened on a copy of Threads, a 1984 British film that, while not in the horror genre, would be the most terrifying film I’d ever see. At that age, I was fascinated by chemistry and physics; the power of hydrogen, in particular, filled me with awe and fear— that, when ignited, one would be ashes before they even saw the blaze (and I’d write those very words much later in life, in 2019, when I’d begin my Atomic Sonnets series in honor of The Periodic Table’s 150th birthday). Threads left quite an impression on me, to put it lightly. It has, exponentially, tied itself to my work and person, in both literature and science, at different stages of my life. Today, my awe for hydrogen’s proprieties is more a reverence for its desire to bond with other elements— the promise of a beginning to life like ours, which, statistically speaking, is quite rare. I recall this quote from astronomer Fred Hoyle:
Life cannot have had a random beginning … The trouble is that there are about two thousand enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 10^40,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.
You see, what makes Threads so terrifying is that it reveals, through unnerving accuracy and irrefutable probability, that nuclear war leads to nuclear winter, only for the sun to return with such strong ultraviolet rays, it would mean the end of the human race and almost all life on earth. That, by making the land completely unlivable and disrupting the ability of human reproduction, it would be impossible for humanity to catch up, to recover the numbers needed to keep going. There simply wouldn’t be enough time for soil and body to heal. As the Arrow of Time states, once an event happens, it can’t unhappen, which is true in the world of physics for everything— that time is a one-way affair— and it takes on new significance here: with a single push of a button, everything we’ve built and loved could be taken from us, a species who in 2024, is really only now celebrating 100 years of quantum mechanics.
Every adult should see Threads. I’m not sure if seeing the film at 12 was a good idea, but as the Arrow of Time goes— once something happens, it cannot unhappen— I can’t change my decision. The film continues to haunt me— but not all hauntings are unfortunate. It’s one of the reasons why, on a cold May morning in 2023, as I stood with the museum’s Josh Mack and Ariel Kates for the first time in Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones exhibit, hearing the story of what the trees stood for, why they were planted in the stones, that I thought of Threads and Hoyle’s words. And when I learned about Darwin, the one tree in the exhibit still living while his dwarf oak siblings near their end, I thought immediately of one other poet whom I also discovered in my youth, a poet whose work made me want to honor one of the rarest of statistics: life here on earth. That, as Hoyle might agree, just how life on this planet formed and evolved is so unlikely—and so rare, that if I were an extraterrestrial who was told this happened and how far a species had come in such a short time (relatively speaking, compared to the age of the known universe itself), I’d wonder if it were nothing more than a beautiful fantasy.
That morning, I shivered in awe of what Goldsworthy had created in living memory of the Shoah and was suddenly flooded with memories of praying with my father as a child, learning the Shema and V’ahavta, the threads of his tallit, the chill of the synagogue air no matter the time of year. Looking up at my father, always looking up at him, his eyes closed, his swaying. Both of us have a very private relationship with HaShem. Both of us two electrons circling the same great mystery. Both of us bonded, whether we liked it or not, to the Arrow of Time— the beginnings of what I knew I wanted to write about…
And the poet, the poet who saved me from despair of possibilities laid out in Threads: An extraordinary man who wrote the poem every single person should read.
His name: Nazim Hikmet.
The poem: “On Living.”
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
—”On Living,” Nazim Hikmet
Recently, I hosted a screening of Threads for those who’d never seen it. My friend had asked me to host it in his home since he knew there’d be questions after, a lot of questions on the accuracy of the science behind it, and that I could answer them. Since I’d seen it once, I thought I could handle it. I know the film almost by heart, each scene burned in my memory. I explained beforehand that one could see clips of the film, but to really understand the powerful warning behind its message, you had to see the whole thing in one go.
During the entire film, no one got up and asked for a break. No one said a word. A dark room, each viewer losing themselves in the film.
When it was over and my friend undimmed lights, there was a brief moment of complete silence.
Then, a slow turning toward me, and an unraveling of what ifs.
They didn’t ask questions about the science of the film itself. They proposed scenarios on what to do if this did happen: what if we did this or what if we did that, for surely, we’ve come a long way in survival skills since the film’s creation in 1984. What if we used seeds from that seed bank in the Arctic? What if we found a way to decontaminate the soil beforehand? What if we just wore protective clothing all the time when the sun returned? What if we just stayed underground for a few generations? What if we study more about cockroaches now— don’t they have what it takes to survive? What if….
I tried to explain that there were a lot of factors at play, such as, without proper maintenance of existing nuclear reactors, they would inevitably meltdown anyway, not to mention how fine and tiny are the specks of fallout (it would get everywhere), and one cannot outlive a few generations hiding from the sun that would scorch the earth, and as the film revealed, society as a whole would collapse into a feudal system and any children born during this time— well, the likelihood of healthy reproduction would be so dire, humans would go extinct. When it comes to a nuclear winter, there are no second chances. All our progress: poof, gone.
But wait a minute, what if—
I excused myself for a moment. Meaning I hid in the bathroom and texted a poet friend of mine, Erika Meitner. I looked through the threads of our earlier conversations; Erika has been a rock in my life for some time. A Jewish poet herself, we’ve had long conversations about poetry,
Judaism, the responsibility that comes along with discovery. Warm, intelligent, and often with humor, Erika has pulled me out of some dark places as I wrestle with my own health challenges, particularly what I call my “faulty wiring” in my spine and passing tremors in my left hand. We talk about the evening, and then she texts: well, this was my world today. Follows with photos of her child’s birthday party that looks like a Chuck E. Cheese-style bunker.
What is that place? I ask.
A trampoline park with obstacle courses, she replies.
I notice a sign in one of photos she sends that says: Gravity Is Overrated.
Well, yes, gravity is overrated, I write back. It’s causing huge problems with Unified Field Theory.
I think of all the unsolved problems in theoretical physics like Unified Field Theory and The Arrow of Time. 100 years of quantum mechanics and still so many mysteries to unravel. Erika and I text for a while because I realize I can’t speak for the rest of the night. I’m out of words, verbally. I’m swaying. My father, my rock. My left hand prickly and tingling. Survival courses. Darwin, the sole survivor of the dwarf oak saplings. I text her good night and return to the others in the room, but still cannot speak. I grab a drink and listen. I listen and listen. What if we….
I go on listening, nodding my head. I go on listening because there’s a theory about the end of everything. See, if we can avoid a fate like the one in Threads, we still have to contend, though not for a good, long while, that the known universe is expanding. Eventually, future generations will look up and not see stars in the skies because of this expansion, an event signaling the winding down of, well, everything. The un-threading of existence if you will. Depths upon growing depths of freezing deep space that overtake stars and planets, galaxy after galaxy. When all is almost gone, the sole survivor— the Darwin in this theory— would be one final black hole, which will then vaporize, until all that’s left is a blanket of photons as the expansion freezes them to absolute zero.
And then— time ceases to exist. The Arrow of Time ends.
A true finality: Nothing will happen and continue to not happen.
No more threads.
So it would seem.
But I’m stubborn. Call it cautious optimism. I’ve known much cruelty and upheaval in my life, but like Darwin and Hikmet’s trees, there’s something in me that listens to all the what ifs of people I’ve just met, and I go on listening because I really, really want to make Hikmet’s words true: although you fear death you don’t believe it. And because I want to help protect this planet for as long as I can— especially for those future generations, whom in Hikmet’s words, I will never meet.
I think this something inside of me is my bond to HaShem. It might be as small as a single electron, that’s all it takes, the truest thread of my own existence. It’s holding on to that blanket of those last photons now. Like Darwin.
I didn’t intend the introduction to my poem to be this long. I’m grateful to everyone at MJH, especially Ariel and Josh, and Madeline Roodberg for creating the beautiful short film of my reading of the poem. And to President and CEO Jack Kliger whom I met at Carnegie Hall, where we took part in “We Are Here: Songs From The Holocaust” for International Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2023, and who entrusted me to write this.
On a final note, I have a theory. It’s an answer, of sorts, to the theory of the eventual end of everything. As I explained before, humans have evolved and made progress in such a short span of time. And what we know as the end of everything is the end of the known universe— meaning, when dark energy pushes all the stars so far from us, and the last photon fades, I’d still bet on us: that humanity will find a way to escape and go on surviving and thrive elsewhere, outside this universe itself, bringing with us all we’ve learned, hopefully the threads of ourselves that want to bond. Because living itself, as Hikmet wrote, weighs heavier. Weighs heavier than the fear I feel waiting to get the results of an MRI. My faulty wiring is a known universe, but my electron bond to God is something so much larger. My awe of the unknown is always so close, always changing the question, the riddle, so we might continue to evolve. To see what we need is sometimes right in front of us. How stone itself is made of the same electrons and quarks as us, just endless threads and threads of particles. How threads become stones and our pillars of father and faith, living and remembrance.
How fragile they all are, and the care with which we must handle them.
Within this poem and these words lives my awe for the very fact we are here. I want to honor that statistic of life’s rarity. I want to honor the planting of these trees, the memories which live and die in stone, and are dug up as to remember the difficulty it takes to look after living itself, so that we might plant again and again—
It’s all here.
Everything we need for the next thread: it’s right here.
When You Are the Arrow of Time
By Rosebud Ben-Oni
who will carry Light
of My Eyes & who will take root
in osseous mire & who to remember
steel wool only makes it heavier since probability
is not potential & all
that happens can never
unhappen: the only law
to bear Talmudic measure
for all of us too are part
of every red giant & failed
star whose beyond stretches
without forever like a tree
in stone makes darkness a home a sole
until even silence
is no longer
Here in the Garden of Stones,
imagine the years it will take
again. Remember honor
should never be easy & this
is how we were meant
to remember. & remember
the brain is mostly
dead weight, & to experience real
time means the mind fills
with memories, so truth,
as it goes,
is always behind—
& remember too how hands
never actually touch,
it’s just electrons
& it’s all the same, really, how
is how we reach
each other is how
hold the dead
of our living.
Every one of us wandering an orbit.
Everyone in so much unseen
quantum possibility & never
alone & never
electrons, this is
reminded, & perhaps why
we speak of the very end as good
faith & an endless tracking
for sign so the dead
rest but we,
we can’t stop knocking
for what made us
human kept us
around & beholden
to fight The Arrow of Time: all reprise, no
surprise. Not one of us can scour the taking
of time, there is only your one-way
asymmetry, your entropy, all
reach & no feeling— not
like us, no, not like
Our People of the Book.
Our People who hollow memory
into impossible rock
with the water so close,
at the edge of this island,
my electrons, the buzz
of gulls calling across
as you pummel
of Time, forsaking even Saturn
ever losing her rings, billions & billions
of lumps, ice & rock raining down
metallic wheeze, since gravity, like yourself, must win,
even with a hundred million years left
to keep one’s name—
not recognition but place—
so many great planets, excess of moons
& beltways, your onward
is the only & so much love
already lost in distant
& indelicate quiver &
yet I still believe here
here is memory
moving forward not
unlike Darwin, the lone
survivor who even you cannot
imagine less than our own sun
a dwarf star of low luminosity
how he began a dwarf oak sapling
the last to thrive in boulderstone he is
the strength of our people your strange
caress & a reckoning
we dream as a new
tendril emerging in the coldest
of realms without atmosphere
a seed that might never know grass
or kindness or those who died for it
unknowing the sum of care taken
to remember everything
we need is here on Earth