Proof of an Afterlife

This poem won First place in 2-Day Poem Contest 2009

In the graveyard at Ottawa, Illinois,

Geiger-counters detect the afterlife. Here

and all across town in landfills the white dust

of radioactive radium and zinc sulfide – 

kissed by the sweet red lips of factory girls

and painted onto one tiny watch dial after another –

waits out the tick-tick-tick of its 1600-year half-life.


The girls twirled their paintbrush tips

between their lips, as instructed, drawing

precise outlines for the miniature numbers – 8 and 6

some of the most difficult – and pulled the brushes

deftly down the sides of the numerals, erasing

excess paint and on the next twirl of the brush,

swallowing it. See, it’s harmless, said the supervisors.

No odor, no taste, no noxious fumes!

Each number was exact, the lines

hard-edged, no gradation.  No time to improvise

over a mistake – precision was everything. 

                                                              At night

after lights out, in the bathroom mirror, the girls

could see the brilliant freak show – thrilling! –

of their teeth glowing in the dark.


“Undark,” it was called, or “Luna” –

the beautiful names for radioluminescent paint,

its glow-in-the-dark lure soon found everywhere:

Westclox alarm clock faces, doorbells, bedroom slipper buttons,

the eyes of dolls and toy animals, even theater seat numbers.

US army watches shined all night into the dreams of new soldiers.


There were stories that in Switzerland,

even under a wire-thin crescent moon, young girls’ hair sparkled

and sparked at night, flashing effervescent as a halo.  But in Ottawa

the angels fell apart, their teeth coming loose in handfuls, bones

crumbling overnight, dead before morning.


No more parlour games, no kisses, never anybody’s sweetie

or kumquat after that – a small settlement after the legal quagmire

and now they sink down, year after year, into the boneyard where

new teenagers thrill themselves by walking

over the graves at night, the mechanical tick of Geiger-counters

proving, beyond the rumors, that the dead

are with us, and never go away.