The Radium Girls

She doesn't mind talking about hers
the slow kind       bruises and swellings
an epidemic of tumors       more photos
nubile girls in cloche hats
wall-eyed boas       grinning at the camera

Radium dial factory girls       deft of hand
each proud to be a woman       earning a man's paycheck
painting numbers       that glow in the dark
on our bedroom clocks       a the time clock ticks
their tractable faces       white and luminous
as calla lilies       bending bobbed heads
over their handiwork       licking the pearly tips
to stub their brushes       to a fine point

In this new element       distilled from deep underground
in the moist rich earth       promising miracle cures
and healing waters       each one unaware
she offers       a share of her body       a note to come due
in five years or ten       down the line

In the X-ray room       she crouches on an iron table
in the government study       the Army needs to see
her shining ribs       her spine like organ keys

More photos       boarded-up factories
steel coffins       barely muffle
the radiant ticking below       negative numbers
half-lives poisoned       an empty clock face
its nights and days       burned away

Sixty years later       this Midwestern grave
of the last of the red-hot mommas
still too hot to handle

:: Barbara Unger, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs

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