Poets for Science
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Radium Girls

They painted their fingernails with light,
licked the tips of brushes dipped in it,
making fine points of the bristles,
to paint glowing numerals on clock dials
that count the hours of shimmering futures
their own hands would never reach.

In Ottawa & Waterbury, walking home at dusk,
the girls glowed like fireflies, their faces lit
like the faces of the watches they’d spent their days,
their lives, painting for soldiers to wear in the trenches,
so they’d be safe, in synchronous maneuvers, from revealing
their positions. Meanwhile, the girls shone, their own

positions illumed & finally, ill. From behind lead shields
the chemists & owners of the chemical plants would chant,
“Lip, dip, paint,” & so they did, good daughters of the poor—
fourteen, fifteen, seventeen years old—daubing their teeth
with it, keen to surprise their suitors with high-watt smiles
when the lights were turned down low. But the real surprise

was when the teeth from those bright smiles began to fall out,
dragging pieces of jawbones with them. All they’d wanted
was to glitter for a minute like the diamonds of the rich,
& for a minute they did. Then they died, like sparklers
whose lit beauty consumed them. While boys in the trenches
were hailed as heroes, the girls on radium-soaked benches

were maligned as syphilitic by corporations who knew
there were younger sisters at home that could be hired.
Undark™ was the brand of paint, culled from carnotite ore,
found near petrified trees in the Paradox Valley. All true:
undark & petrified & paradox & girls who glowed. Even
their corsets—cages for ribcages—were stained with radiance.

 

First published in The Westchester Review, Winter 2022 Issue