Mary McMyne: Irène Joliot-Curie

As a girl I learned the elements.
With a pencil my mother Marie
sketched the shapes of compounds:
the honeycomb of water, the zigzag
of sugar, the gridiron of salt.
This is the way it is, she said.
Everything has its own form.

I believed her until the day
I saw the woman in the mirror,
wide-hipped, lips as pink as a rose pączek.
Hair like water, as black as Roussin’s salt.
Through alchemy of time,
I’d been transformed.

After that, I walked among men
and tasted their salt. I sampled
the sugar of their flesh, and wet lips.
After Frédéric and I – oh happy aggregate –
I was not prepared for the way it swelled my belly.
I was not prepared for the way it muddled my thought.

In the laboratory, we realized
the alchemist’s sweet dream
of turning one element into another.
We turned boron into unstable nitrogen.
We turned alum into phosphorus
that wept and turned to salt.

But now, in this hospital named for my mother,
it is not the X-rays that possess me, not the saline,
the sugar-water, or the changes in my blood.
It is those first few months with Hélène,
all those nights I spent alone and yet not
at the lab window, transformed.

In this hospital bed, as the white room
breathes and flares into nonsense,
I keep falling back into the first night
I felt her inside me, her passage
from nothing into something
lighting mine into the dark.

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