Poetry | March 01, 2002

Featuring the poems:

  • Radium Girls
  • The Laboratory at Night
  • Marie Curie and Albert Einstein in Engadine
  • Dr. Tobe Attends MME. Curie on Her Deathbed


Radium Girls

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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