by Adrienne Rich
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
- We promised you Marie Curie, and here she is.
- Except, it's kind of weird. The poem does a complete 180 in this stanza. Now, instead of talking about ancient bottles of tonic, we're talking about our gal Marie. Why?
- Let's start with the basics. Marie Curie was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered radium, polonium, and radioactivity in the early 20th century. She eventually died because of complications from exposure to radium, the very element she discovered. For more on Madame Curie, check out the "In A Nutshell" section.
- In these lines, the speaker tells us that she was reading about Curie. It's a very casual intro to the subject of the poem, like the speaker is saying: "hey, guess what I read in People magazine? Apparently, was this awesome chick, Marie Curie…"
- But it's heavy stuff we're talking about here. The speaker tells us that Marie "must have known she suffered from radiation sickness," from her science work.
- Thanks to our handy Shmoop brain, we know that Marie actually denied the fact that her exposure to radium—i.e., her life's work and scientific discoveries—was the thing that was slowly killing her.
- So when the speaker says that Curie "must have known," she is actually arguing against the famous scientist. She's saying that Curie must have, deep down in her heart, known the truth about her illness.
- Note that these lines seem so much smoother than the early lines of the poem. Before, the poem was all herky-jerky with its big spaces. Now it seems to be chilling out and slowing down. That's because we're getting to the good stuff.
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or pencil
- Now the speaker digs deep into the life of Curie, and describes her in detail.
- She says that Marie was "bombarded" by radium, the "element / she had purified." What she discovered—what made her famous, what changed the course of scientific research in the 20th century—was the thing that killed her. What a cruel twist of fate.
- And what's even sadder is the fact that Curie denied the truth of her sickness to the end.
- The speaker uses powerful imagery in the next few lines. She describes the cataracts in Curie's eyes, the cracked skin of her fingertips. We find the word "suppurating"—which means, literally, forming pus—to be incredibly evocative (and, we won't deny it: incredibly gross).
- We have here an image of a woman who was so dedicated to her work that she kept on keeping on, even when she couldn't see because of cataracts, even when her fingers were deformed and oozy. She worked until her hands no longer worked, until she could "no longer hold a test tube or pencil." (And test tubes and pencils, of course, are the tools that enabled all of her research.)
- We don't know about you, but Shmoop really feels for Marie in these lines.
- These lines also continue to be pretty smooth, until the last two of this stanza, when those big ol' spaces creep back in. As the poem goes on, and we hear about Curie's decrepit body, the poem begins to fall apart, as if the poem's form is enacting what happens to Marie Curie.
- Also, we're wondering, why deny the truth, Marie? Why deny your radiation poisoning? Did you really know what was going on or not? Let's keep reading and see if Rich has answers for us.