From a ton of pitchblende
dumped at the edge of pine-woods,
Marie Curie fills her vats
and begins a four-year stirring.
She boils hot miasma
down to thimbles of crystal radium
until the lab fills with the glow of decay.
At night, avoiding the moon's spell,
Marie and Pierre bathe
in flickering blue silhouettes
that glow in their tubes like faint fairy lights.
I can see them kiss like lovers before a fire,
passions aflame, her marrow burning to scar.
Huddled in Belgian trenches
where time has stopped,
soldiers count the numbers
radiating from their watches,
deadly as mustard gas,
comforting as any light in darkness.
Back home, their sweethearts
long for safe returns, yearn
for glow-in-the-dark light pulls.
50 girls hunch at wooden desks
in the Radium Dial Company, Ottawa, Illinois,
hair cut short, heads aligned like an army in review,
not a soldier older than 20,
wooden trays beside them filled with clocks
arranged like cupcakes waiting to be iced.
They mix paint from powdered base,
lip-point brushes with long licks
into tips fine enough to paint time,
250 dials a day,
five and a half days each week,
a penny and a half per dial.
Covered with a thin powder
That puts a glow in your cheeks,
they paint buttons, fingernails, teeth.
Beneath the stardust, boys gravitate
to their radiant blue bodies.
Confused bones bond Radium tight,
and it singes their core
until jaws break, teeth rot,
wounds grow purulent without healing.
The company claims safety.
Dentists lie through their teeth.
And one hundred Radium Girls are dead.
A woman is stretched out on her sick bed.
Five former workers encircle her,
arms folded, looking down at the figure
whose eyes are closed and could pass for dead.
A man in a dark suit sits and stares
directly at her closed eyes but doesn't touch her.
One woman holds a comma of white hand
while the others stand inert.
On the wall behind the group
hangs a cheap picture of a pine forest
my eyes search for a pile of pitchblende.
Motherless since 6, a 70-year-old daughter
walks her 5 a.m. mile to the Ottawa cemetery
and tends the grass on her mother's grave.
Argonne National Laboratory dug here last month.
Six feet down, bones still tick
in the earth's dark pocket.
Read more of Dr. Berlin's work.