Radium Girls

by Ken Ashworth
The Writer's Block
First Place, November 2018
Judged by Jeanette Beebe

Once was a question
We never asked.
It was a job needed doing.
There was a war on.

We worked at night
to better see the dials
and watch face, tipped
camel hair to our lips
to make a fine point.

Painted luminescent
hands and Roman
numerals on altimeters
tipped iron gunsights,
color of old moonlight.

For the boys in France
plugged in some ditch
or bunker behind the
Hindenburg Line.
A hundred years their
ghosts have ranged
Flanders Field and
Belleau Wood on the Marne.

We are the beacon
the light of home,
and beckon mildly
them to come mingle

with our bones. Our lips are warm,
the radium girls
still glowing in our graves.

This poem moves through time with a magic that serves its subject: the legacy of the women who worked with self-luminous paint for radium-lit watches in the early 20th century. Many women fell ill from radiation poisoning, which led to workers' rights lawsuits. Framing the poem in the collective voice — especially "We are the beacon / the light of home" — is a powerful choice; the poem would have been harder to grasp if it told the Radium Girls' story of something that happened to "them." The poem also does a good job of using language in a confident, economical voice: "It was a job needed doing / There was a war on." The final line — "still glowing in our graves" — is an especially strong image, a signal about the impact these women left. --Jeanette Beebe