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Marie Curie's Fairy Lights

Look at these hands: how scarred they are, how ugly.

They reproach me every time I push the shed door closed

although, compared to Pierre, there’s little enough

to complain of: at least I can raise them to the latch

still lift the iron rod we use for mixing.

The glass roof lets in the rain, but sometimes

through the grime, if I have time to notice,

clouds bulky as hypotheses peer in

as if curious to see what comes of this activity.


The world is changed upon this table

that was dragged from who knows where for us. 

Einstein seemed to peer over it as if worlds

trembled on it.

Me, I seek matter’s simplicity, I want

to grind its elemental nub

in our mortar, capture

its exhalations in the sacks of brown dust

and pine needles we scavenge daily.  Pierre teases

did I leave my mother’s church behind

only to find angels in a pile of pitchblende?


If so, I scold, I want to know their atomic weight!

Didn’t angels climb a ladder between

the desert’s stony data and realms of principle

every patient step from test to validation

and back again a tiny transformation

every rung an inkling, their hosannas in equations? 


Sit beside me now, my angels of enquiry

the row of tiny flames beneath

your retorts reminds me of recent talk

about an originating detonation: perhaps this only means

that he was right, after all, that man who spoke of fire

as the beginning and the end of all matter

and of how that fire is consumed.  I think of Bruno, too,

of how the embers must have smouldered

and those metal clamps they used to shut his mouth

forever; as I pass the tubes


they glow like fairy lights, as if they hold

some remnant of that fire snatched for us

its mixed portents, its light that eats at our livers

a reminder that those who would change the world

must steal their plans from the gods.


What the world tells us of itself it says in light

for all our need to know we are

no more than a special wavelength

rising from our leaky shed

here in its neglected corner, glowing

with certainty’s half-life, open to receive

the tiny matter of the stars.

Shorlisted, PM's Science Prize for Poetry 2013

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