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Radium

His gifts to her were theory, patience,

equilibrium, and a pile of dirt—

industrial waste. He loved to watch his wife

aglow with determination, pursuing

discovery of a hidden element, past uranium,

by the light of her hunger. “I should

like it to have a beautiful color,” he said.

He would buy her boots to wipe at the Sorbonne.

Heated, she leaned over a boiling vat,

stirring her dirt reduction, hour on hour.

She looked like any skinny hausfrau

bent to her bubbling sauerkraut.

She looked like the first woman who would be

awarded a Nobel Prize, as well as

the first to fall to her knees before

a hill of brown dust shot through with pine needles

and press her filled hands to her face.

She boiled her tons of pitchblende down

to a scraping of radium nearly the size

of their baby’s smallest fingernail—just the white.

Proof of its existence, and hers.

It permeated their clothes, their papers,

peeled their fingers,

entered their marrow and slowly burned.

He mildly alluded to rheumatism.

He stroked her radioactive hair

with a radioactive hand.

Colorless, shining radium darkened

in contact with air. Chemically

much like calcium, it could stream

like calcium through her brain cells

in her later years alone

and make memories glow in the dark:

illegal schooling, unheated rooms,

subsistence on tea and chocolate. Lying

with her husband for a few hours’ sleep,

cracked hands and weakened legs entwined,

united gaze resting on the vial

of radium salts they kept beside them every night

for the lovely light it shed.

from Debt to the Bone-Eating SnotflowerFind it in the library

Copyright © 2013 Sarah Lindsay
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.

Published in Poems Sarah Lindsay

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