Poetry | March 01, 2002
Poetry Feature: Eleanor Swanson
Featuring the poems:
- Radium Girls
- The Laboratory at Night
- Marie Curie and Albert Einstein in Engadine
- Dr. Tobe Attends MME. Curie on Her Deathbed
We sat at long tables side by side in a big
dusty room where we laughed and carried
on until they told us to pipe down and paint.
The running joke was how we glowed,
the handkerchiefs we sneezed into lighting
up our purses when we opened them at night,
our lips and nails, painted for our boyfriends
as a lark, simmering white as ash in a dark room.
“Would you die for science?” the reporter asked us,
Edna and me, the main ones in the papers.
Science? We mixed up glue, water and radium
powder into a glowing greenish white paint
and painted watch dials with a little
brush, one number after another, taking
one dial after another, all day long,
from the racks sitting next to our chairs.
After a few strokes, the brush lost its shape,
and our bosses told us to point it with
our lips. Was that science?
I quit the watch factory to work in a bank
and thought I’d gotten class, more money,
a better life, until I lost a tooth in back
and two in front and my jaw filled up with sores.
We sued: Edna, Katherine, Quinta, Larice and me,
but when we got to court, not one of us
could raise our arms to take the oath.
My teeth were gone by then. “Pretty Grace
Fryer,” they called me in the papers.
All of us were dying.
We heard the scientist in France, Marie
Curie, could not believe “the manner
in which we worked” and how we tasted
that pretty paint a hundred times a day.
Now, even our crumbling bones
will glow forever in the black earth.
The Laboratory at Night
Hand in hand we walk in the darkness, beneath
the stars where all but the simplest atoms are made.
Helium and hydrogen alone belong to earth, the rest
to space, to these stars, glowing with a light of their
own, light overlapping light across the dusty Milky Way.
I feel the damp grass through my shoes, smell the night’s
perfume of beast and flower, earth and air.
We have just kissed our daughters good night.
My heart’s wings are green and gossamer.
It leaps like a springfly, up and down.
I unlock the door and it swings open,
squeaking loudly on its ancient hinges.
I must fix it so that finally we may enter
the laboratory in silence, undistracted.
Marie puts her hand upon my own.
“Don’t light the lamps,” she whispers.
Suddenly we stand among a roomful
of stars caught in vials and tubes placed
on tabletops and shelves, everywhere,
phosphorescent bluish light, our radium.
I am dreaming.
I have entered an unearthly garden.
I am trembling. I want to live
in my body forever.
“You see, Pierre,” Marie says,
her voice full of happiness,
and echoing in the spacious room,
“your wish has come true,
that our discovery be beautiful.”
Ah, my dear.
The beauty of the stars, ancient cosmic
particles colliding to form atoms, such as
this very atom. Starlight distilled, this light
that glows around us on all sides.
This startling light.
Marie Curie and Albert Einstein Hike in Engadine
Before first we met, M. Einstein let it be
known he admired my scientific work,
my discoveries. When he came to Paris
in the spring of 1913, I invited him
and Mileva to my flat on quai de Bethune,
near the Seine and the pont Sully,
just across the river from my laboratory
at the Sorbonne, where I said
I’d be pleased to take him.
One evening, after dinner, he told us
we must visit him in Switzerland
and hike the upper Engadine trail.
His voice was half wild with excitement,
so intent he was upon persuading us
of the mountains’ beauty.
That summer, rucksack on my back,
as I looked with wonder at those soaring
granite spires, I couldn’t stop myself
from thinking of Pierre, my Pierre,
and how he would have first looked
down, at Etan–a doll village our girls
might have fashioned–nestled in a deep,
green woods. Slowly, in his way,
he would have gazed up to the jagged
peak half hidden by shreds of cirrus clouds.
At last, as if dreaming, I saw him drop
to his knees and cup the tiny, star-shaped
wildflowers in his hands, murmuring
their names, as if calling to them.
For the first time in years, I felt myself
beginning to weep. “Ah,” I said to Albert,
my breath coming in hard little gasps,
“the trail grows steep.” For a time
I couldn’t speak more, as if I’d found
myself pierced by some towering stone.
When little by little peace entered my poor
heart again, I listened with care to Albert,
who was in the middle of a physics lesson.
“Phzzt,” he said. “Like that. You hold it
in your hand, and then it is gone.
Transformed,” he called into the wind.
“Merely transformed, like Marie’s precious radium.”
Dr. Tobe Attends MME. Curie on Her Deathbed
“Mme. Curie can be counted among the eventual victims of the radioactive bodies she and her husband discovered.”
-Professor Regaud, present at Sancellemoz, where Marie Curie died.
In Paris, a team of celebrated doctors
diagnosed tubercular lesions and sent
the poor woman on her last journey,
to my sanatorium in the Savoy mountains.
Our x-rays show no evidence of lung disease.
They were fools not to see the symptoms
blood tests confirmed: extreme pernicious
anemia, manifest in fever, chills
and a shocking pallor of the skin.
For hours, her younger daughter
holds the dying woman’s hand
and whispers promises she knows
she cannot keep, calling her stay
with us a “holiday” which she’ll
return from fully cured.
The halls are full of whispers,
people stricken at the thought
the deathwatch for the eminent
Marie Curie has begun.
I pause at a window, to see
that clouds veil our splendid
view of Mont Blanc.
The thought brings me a peculiar
sadness, as if a storm might gather
and add to the fervor and gloom.
The older daughter, a noted scientist
herself, has just arrived with her husband.
I hear that together, they have recently laid
bare the inner workings of the atom,
these two young people weeping in the hall.
We can do nothing now but monitor
her decline and ease her suffering.
Holding the thermometer in a trembling
hand, she insists on reading the mercury
herself, noting that for the first time
in many days, her temperature
is finally falling. She looks toward
the open window with a serene face.
“You see,” she whispers,
“it is the air, the pure air.”
Young Eve kisses her hand
and assures her mother
this is the sign she will
soon be well again.
But in such cases, the lessening
of fever always precedes death.
Through the night, as we take turns
sitting with her, even in her final dreams
she ponders scientific work, restlessly
murmuring words familiar to her late
research: “actinium,” “centrifugation,”
and whole sentences too faint to hear,
but rising on the final word as
question after question.
I listen in amazement, a witness
to her determination not to perish
without a gallant struggle.
But soon after dawn, when pure
unfiltered sunlight fills the room,
she slips away, her last deep sigh
echoing and shifting the air
into plateaus of light and shadow
such as I have never seen
and will never see again.
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