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