by Ken Hunt
— for Marie Sklodowska Curie
What need compelled your hands to prod
elemental embodiments of chaotic decay,
to tinker with glinting flasks of these vicious
species of dust? If young Joan of Arc spoke
with god, and burned for their exchanges,
then what gods communed with you that
set your bones ablaze, left you delirious
from necrotic marrow? How many hours,
O dark priestess of Prometheus, did you carry
test tubes virulent with flameless fires, gently
slid into the pockets of your lab coats, each
inch of their fabric unsinged, yet malignant?
The fraying atoms you interrogated co-wrote
entries in your journals, embedded marginal notes
between molecules of ink. Reading these pages
of cursed prose now requires protective gloves.
Samples kept in the drawers of your desk gave
off faint auras, your will-o-wisp companions during
winters spent purifying powdered ores. Long
after the wheel of a cart crushed your husband’s
skull, did you remember Kazimierz Zorawski,
the mathematician whose parents forbade
their son associate with a penniless Polish girl?
Years after your death, a certain old professor
could be seen each day, seated before the statue
of you erected at Warsaw Polytechnic, where
he lectured. As Red Cross director, you drove
a mobile x-ray cart across fields laden with
corpses and scorched iron, mending the bones
of wailing soldiers. You filled hollow needles
with radon, instantly sterilizing wounds as they
were stitched, but the book of recipes you cooked
your meals with must now be stored in a box lined
with lead. The arcane weight of artefacts mangles
the steady gaze of history, overexposes fantasies
of clarity with scathing rays. What more is there,
other than chemistry, for any writing to occupy?
The measure of a half-life is subject to estimates,
imperfect measurements, and unchecked variables.
No one can see what has been, nor what is left to be.