A REVIEW OF SANDY POOL'S
BY ADÈLE BARCLAY
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 5 | November 15, 2013
In her second collection of poetry, Undark: An Oratorio, Sandy Pool mines history, myth, and science to unearth the tragic and forgotten tale of the radium dial painters. In the early twentieth century, women factory workers were employed to paint watches and dials with Undark, a glow-in-the-dark paint containing radium. Instructed to keep their paintbrushes pointed with their tongues and lips, the women ingested the radium paint and later developed serious medical conditions related to radium poisoning. Doctors incorrectly diagnosed the women with syphilis for their mysterious symptoms and the women died without compensation or any recognition of their suffering.
Pool brings to light this intricate and catastrophic history of women’s labour and carries it to epic heights through the form of the oratorio. Typically oratorios deploy a variety of musical compositions, making use of choirs, soloists, orchestras, and small ensembles, to address a sacred topic; what distinguishes an oratorio from an opera is the stripped down setting and the lack of interaction between the sets of characters and songs in the oratorio. To accomplish her task, Pool constructs a cast of characters, providing a “Dramatis Personae” to introduce readers to the interpolating modes and voices that comprise the collection.
The voices of the oratorio range from mythic to commercial, dark to naïve, bodily to transcendent. The personae take turns imparting their perspective in their own distinct styles, and so the story progresses through a series of alternating poetic poses that form the narrative. Undark begins with the voice of the Greek lyric poet Sappho, rooting the collection in a tradition of women’s literature, which found text from Anne Carson’s own Fragments of Sappho further bolsters. Nox, an eternal and wise Marie Curie figure, knowingly chimes in and hovers from various points throughout the twentieth century, predicting and then depicting the sickness that the radium paint has unleashed. The Radium Women compose an ensemble of workers aged eleven to forty-five who divulge their work, daily routines, relationships, and their eventual deterioration and public shaming. A radio propagandist called Undark punctures the somber atmosphere with ever enthusiastic and ironic glorifications of radium products gleaned from actual advertisements dating back to the early 1900s. A chorus that Pool designates “a sea of light” echoes the Radium Women’s story with the perspective and gravitas of a higher plane. The inventor of Undark, Sabin, interjects ecstatically and then bitterly, enthralled with his creation until his trajectory concludes with radium-induced neurosis and demise. And finally, the voice of another ancient female figure anchors the complex score: Hatschepsut, a pharaoh of Ancient Egypt and one of the first great known women in history. The multiple, divergent voices work in tandem to give the collection a complicated yet coherent scope.
The array of characters carries the story of the Radium Women through various dimensions: the tale resides in the material world of quotidian habits, labour, and suffering and then releases into the transcendent realm of epic mythology. Undark questions the divide between these two categories, championing this friction to make audible the minute and tragic details of this story of women’s work. The plot of struggle, an obscured enemy, the mythological modes, and the chorus all import classical qualities into Pool’s oratorio, and so the poet reanimates epic poetry, infusing the genre with Bakhtinian polyphony as the myriad voices contribute to the narrative. Through this sea of voices, Pool stretches the epic genre to incorporate and process issues of modernity, such as industry and capitalism and how these forces inflected the lives of the Radium Women.
The tragedy of Undark plays out on the body. At first the paint inspires a visceral response of giddiness and awe. Mesmerized by his new invention, Sabin exclaims:
After referring to the paint as a lover, Sabin rushes home to greet his sleeping wife (“I run my neon hand down // the long line of her leg”) in a fit of euphoric fervour. Similarly inspired by the illuminating substance, the Radium Women’s lovers coyly request the workers paint their own bodies with the radium paint as a sexual favour. The half-life of this physical delight fades quickly and soon the paint gives way to sickness and death. The women diligently continue their work at home and in the factory, a contribution to the war effort, while their bodies falter. Sabin plunges into a guilt-ridden well of neurosis. As the contrapuntal voices of Undark proceed, the tone turns ominous. To add to this sense of impending disaster, a countdown that leads to 00:00:00:00 marks the pages in the place of numbers. Yet in contrast to the unfolding tragedy, the Undark radio persona persists, cruelly chipper. In advertising the benefits of the glow-in-the-dark paint, the voice of the market asks, “Ever bruise your anatomy in the dark?” providing a sadistic juxtaposition to the women’s radiation-induced ailments. Pool’s treatment of tragedy in bodily terms augments the pathos and emphasizes the emotional, cultural, and spiritual ramifications of the cell-destroying radium paint.
Sound figures strongly in this reworking of the epic. Just as the text works to uncover the unseen (the misdiagnosed radium poisoning, unforeseen consequences of the paint, the unacknowledged history of the women), the oratorio considers the limits of what and who can be heard in the din of history. The Radium Women communicate through song:
We sing lullabies
The Radium Women’s looming fate warps the matrilineal genealogy of lullabies as the radiation damages their bodies. Later, the Radium Women cry out: “come listen / to our pandemonium. / Meet us at the edge of noise,” demanding engagement from the reader and reminding that the difference between music and noise, narrative and chaos, recorded history and unclassified event is more a matter of what we’re trained to listen for. After a failed trial against their employers, the Radium Women plead for their voices to be heard in death: “Please, bury us / where the sound starts.” The globetrotting, time-traveling figure of Nox eerily remarks in “Nox, New Jersey: 1998” that “Beyond the range of human ear, / the cemetery clicks into being.” The women, as Nox observes, are “like whale music”—the rumblings of their story muffled and out of range. Undark seeks to redefine the registers we listen to, expanding the scale of history so that it remembers the refrain of the Radium Women.
The last words belong to the wise woman Nox in an epilogue that resonates beyond the collection: “Since then, I’ve hated / the dark. I never turn off the lights.” The conclusion gestures at the pervasiveness of the issues that the use of radium paint incited: the vulnerability of workers, especially women, in a capitalist system and the subsequent cultural repression of these stories. Nox’s portentous insight is the instruction to stay vigilant and to never stop probing at the dark corners of history—a moral task Pool undertakes beautifully and gravely through research and invention.
In Undark, Pool has created a defiant and ambitious collection, arranging an elaborate cacophony of voices. By appropriating the musical genre of the oratorio, Pool conveys with sober artistry the individual and cultural dimensions of this overlooked historical event and the overwhelming pathos present in the radium women workers’ plight.
ADÈLE BARCLAY is a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria where she researches modern and contemporary American poetry and visual culture. Her writing has appeared in Branch Magazine, The Media Res, The Bull Calf Review, and the anthology Lake Effect III (edited by Carolyn Smart). She is the editor of Stroboscope, a magazine of digital poetry.