“I will be in Stockholm for the ceremony”: Poems That Explore Marie Curie’s Passionate Life and Work
details about the person I was thought to be—
timid or bold, civil or brusque
cold or loving, frail or robust, less or more
talented than my beloved husband—the person
I am is destined forever to remain a mystery.
—from “Lost Biography”
Poems informed by history intrigue me. If the history is somewhat known, what exactly can such poems accomplish? One difficulty with recorded history has always been the challenge of engaging a reader, of making the history live. In such poems, I hope for felt knowledge, high imagination, and the greater understanding that historically based poems can bring, but also want facts and I’m wary of inaccuracy. Still, I want to immerse myself in poetry that can leaven lives, times, and events through shaped, precise, and resonant language. Eleanor Swanson’s A Thousand Bonds: Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium (National Federation of State Poetry Societies Press, 2003) more than meets the challenges, and it offers delights.
Energy and electricity come from a poet’s ability to connect with and move inside the history explored, whether it’s an event or a person. In her illuminating cycle of poems, A Thousand Bonds, Eleanor Swanson takes us deep into the life and work of Marie Curie, with clear, elegant lines that portray her as a passionate woman and a groundbreaking scientist, and bring in the voices of many others to round out and illuminate the portrait.
Each poem becomes a lens through which we see some element of Marie Curie ‘s life and time. “The Laboratory at Night,” in Pierre Currie’s voice, is a lyric tribute to a shared, passionate life dedicated to science. It captures a time in his and Marie’s life before his sudden death. The two walk across damp grass to the laboratory, their daughters asleep in the house. As they enter the laboratory, Marie urges Pierre not to light the lamps. “Suddenly we stand among a roomful / of stars caught in vials and placed / on tabletops and shelves, everywhere, / phosphorescent bluish light, our radium.”
After Pierre’s death in a freakish road accident, Marie records in her journal that she is left with “Nothing but desolation and despair.” She describes herself, addressing him in her words, “The one who died / with you, and who has not courage to go on.” But she does go on, both grieving and moving slowly back to life and work, traveling an astonishing distance against many odds.
In this multifaceted collection, poems explore Pierre’s shocking death, his and Marie’s last afternoon together, her first lecture at the Sorbonne, her work, her eventual love affair, her admirers, her service offering mobile x-ray units during World War I, the difficulty of acquiring radium, her “fervor . . . working alone in the laboratory at night, pursuing a misunderstood passion, her solitary quest.” And her determination to accept the Nobel Prize, despite the scandal surrounding the affair (“Letter to the Swedish Academy,” from which the title is drawn). And so much more.
The poems of A Thousand Bonds are luminous and moving—relevant to the lives of women, the difficulties of science, the multiple paradoxes and dangers of what we know and don’t know—a collection that I hope you will read or reread, as I did, and pass on.