Dial Painters by John Barr image

The Dial Painters

by John Barr

"Over the past two decades, the bodies of at least a dozen women who once painted watch and clock dials with radium have been laid out here for a final measure of radioactivity."
–The Wall Street Journal September 19, 1983

Pointillistes,
you made your points punctiliously
(big hand, little hand, 1,2,3...)
made faces readable on wrists,
in bedside dark.

Chorus of good girls, busy bees,
waiting for the whistle's blow
you painted your toes day-glo,
seeing the possibilities
clowned circles on your cheeks, in jest

Egressed
like wraiths, the best
of spirits. From afar
townspeople could remark
the green fire in your hair.

Twirling in lips
the radium tips,
unaware your brushes were
with death,
how could you, hazarding a hair-
line numeral,

know that you enlightened yourself as well?
Seldom has artist been
so taken by his work,
seldom illumination seen

so unintentional
or unconventional.
Elgin ladies, your bones protest
that marking time at best
is hazardous to health.

By the time
it dawned on you that to ingest
even a trace of these trace elements
involved grave consequence,
you were possessed:

Host to an unholy ghost
who farmed your flesh for tumor's bloom,
who made of your skin a palimpsest,
who made of your bones a metronome
that beat time to the stars.

Slightly to our chagrin
you showed mere industry–
punching out, punching in–
can gain the immortality
the rest of us quicken for.

Mute furies,
interred in the circle of the clock,
you roam
as Greek as tragedies
the stations of your zodiac.

Saints of our time,
Mme. Curie's
curiosities,
to the leaden ark containing your phosphor
skulls, italicized bones we come.

Alive with salts
whose half-life
is your afterlife,
in university vaults
you shine for thousands of years.

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