Poems by Martha Catherine Brenckle

Ottawa, Illinois 1921, Her New Job

The Ottawa Times listed the position
“Girls Wanted as dial painters at Radium Dial”
After the Great War the company bought
the old high school and built the offices and workrooms
It paid well, much better than any other job she could hope for
and her family (11 siblings in a two-room house)
needed whatever money she could earn

The studio—like an artist!—was filled with light
and she was taught to angle her camel haired brush
with her closed lips until the point was very fine
“The company won’t pay for smudged watch faces”
She was assured the paint was perfectly safe
Their supervisor drunk a bowl of it as the new girls watched
“In fact, it is healthy and will make your skin flawless”

The paper watch faces are so small, she thought, as she pointed her brush
dip, lips, point, she painted numbers as smoothly as she could
the only time she paused was to tip her brush to a finer point
She really didn’t like the taste of the paint and vowed never to drink it
Some of the girls painted their fingernails at lunch, some took paint home
On her way home, she passed St. Columba and looked up at the spire
this close to the church, she felt a blessing on her new skills

She reached for her front door handle
her fingertips glowed in the dusk

 

 

1923 Ottawa, Illinois

their workspace welcoming airy and bright
the old high school a grand brick Victorian
arched windows, high ceilings and soft light
the studio holds the high-pitched chatter
the laughter of teenage girls, sisters, cousins
the only time they were quiet and focused
was painting the clock faces, tipping their brushes
and tracing the numbers, not to make a mistake
that would be pointed out in the dark room
sent back to be redone with a bit of embarrassment
the radium paint demands everything from them

 

 

Luminous Lives

Still children at heart
they bought the paint home to play
painted their nails, faces, eyebrows

Turned off the lights to eerie green mustaches
strong teeth and lips glowing in the dark
radium paint sparkled on their party dresses

They were flapper girls
bobbed hair and cheek curls
dancing the Charleston on the way home

Laughing in rebellion as they walked past
St. Columba’s spire, the women inside reciting the rosary
giggling in joyful novena because there was a party on Friday

They laughed as if a whole other world
existed inside them, so deep and wide
they couldn’t see its edges

 

 

After Work at Radium Dial

she hangs her work smock
on a bent wire hook behind the kitchen door

it flutters, shapeless snowy sprays
when her children run by ready for supper

at night, the apron glows like fireflies, insects
faerie wings, smudges in the dark, a child’s finger painting

 

 

The Afternoon She Loses Hope

She walks outside to the edge of town
and there are small fields with cows
this part of Jersey had been dairy
farms when her mother was young

She watches the birds overhead
flying in their own powerful
geometry. The shadows of wings
make patterns on her cheeks

Radium has scooped out the solidity of her bones
left them moth eaten and wavering at the edges
She yearns for horses and oceans of buffalo
a cowboy to scoop her up and make her future

She stops at the fence to look at the cows
one, brown faced, walks up to the splintered rail
leans over and sucks on the sleeve of her sweater
petting its face, she’s surprised by the softness

 

 

June 1923, Helen Quinlan, North Jefferson Street

She watched the dusk from her window
blue sky breaking down, growing dark.
Two birds sat on the back fence, flapping
heaving their wings, all she had to watch.
For weeks she lay in bed, the pain washing
through her legs and knees, what was left
of her jaw throbbing, listening to an ocean
she had never seen, her blood and breath
matching the tides. She asked her mother
to remove the mirror over her dresser.
Her bedroom walls painted a soft green
she wanted to look like forgiveness, like spring
not like the kind of consequences that rippled
and flowed beneath everything like a sigh.

 

 

Do You Wake at Night and Wonder What the Time Is?

For $2.95 you could buy a watch to tell time in the dark
but you need to be able to open your eyes to see time

Mrs. Quinta McDonald was buried in December 1929
in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey

she was one of 2,000 young women who died of radiation necrosis
from ingesting radium paint in Orange, Ottawa and Waterbury

buried in their best dresses and shoes, their wedding rings
they no longer feel time, the rhythm of clocks and pendulums

Only five of them received compensation, the only ones
who bravely took US Radium to court and proved their case

won their case in spite of business and politics, the progress of industry
the slowness of Public Health and Safety, the perplexity of dentists and doctors

the industry had to admit they had been negligent, had not met safety
standards. That the young women they killed were buried

and still radioactive. When once the challenge was to extract a treasure
now the imperative is to safely bury the greed and the waste left behind

Poet Martha Catherine Brenckle

Martha Catherine Brenckle is a Professor at the University of Central Florida where she teaches First-year Writing and Rhetorical Theory. She writes poetry and fiction and has published most recently in The Sea Letter, Clockhouse Review, Broken Bridge Review, Burningword Literary Magazine, Bryant Literary Review and Poets Billow among others. In 2000, she won the Central Florida United Arts Award for Poetry. Her first novel, Street Angel (2006) and was nominated for a Lambda Award and a Triangle Award and was a Finalist for Fence Magazine’s 2007 Best GLBT Novel Award. In 2019, Finishing Line Press published her poetry chapbook, Hard Letters and Folded Wings. Currently, Martha serves as the Treasurer for the GLBTQ+ Museum of Central Florida.