The Radium Girls
Time used to tick, to trip,
to click between seconds
to dangle at the ends of chains
inside the pockets of gentlemen.
Behind glass, time’s chariot
was driven by tiny toothed wheels,
wound along tense springs.
Time was meted out in minutes
on slender hands painted with radium
so that even at night,
the hour would glow,
could be known and told.
Once, time burned, radioactive,
but still lurched along as if
the beginning and end of a second
could be mapped and understood
as sturdy fences standing
between past, present, future.
Once, hunched over, with tiny brushes,
the factory girls painted
radium ticks and stripes
onto watch faces and hands,
filled in the black outlines of numerals
with deadly luminescence.
And in between brush strokes,
they quickly licked the brush
to keep its tip sharp, to save time,
to make the quota imposed by bosses
who wouldn’t go near the stuff.
Some of the sassy girls, their shifts over,
even painted their nails for a lark,
for a dark boudoir surprise.
But then they started losing teeth.
Their bones reinvented themselves.
The radium girls did not glow;
they bent and ached and died.
Even now Marie Curie’s notebooks
are too hot to handle, and so I stow
grandpa’s fishing watch, stopped now
but still glowing, in a basement lockbox.
Upstairs, I’m lit with pulsing curiosity:
what girl’s pink tongue licked the brush
that painted the hands that told my grandfather
when to pull his creel stuffed with rainbow trout
from Coffee Creek and start the hike home,
to the woman who would outlive him by decades?
What girl’s glow still ghosts
the space between those stilled seconds?
Liz Ahl is the author of Talking About the Weather (Seven Kitchens Press 2012), Luck (Pecan Grove Press, 2010), and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (winner of the 2008 Slapering Hol Press chapbook contest). Her poems have appeared recently and are forthcoming in Measure, Bloom, Ecotone, and Nimrod. She lives in Holderness, New Hampshire.