Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio (Nightwood, 2012) explores the tragic story of the Radium Girls, women who in the early to mid 1900s worked in factories painting watch and clock dials with Undark, a radium based glow-in-the-dark paint invented by Sabine Von Sochocky. Encouraged to lick their paintbrushes to keep the brushes pointed, these women developed an array of fatal diseases related to radium poisoning—Von Sochocky also had to remove his thumb because of necrosis, and eventually died of radium induced anemia. Adding insult to injury, lawsuits against the U.S. Radium Corporation were largely unsuccessful, and the company accused the women of having contracted syphilis, rather than having been poisoned at work. Undark opens with a single-page introduction outlining these facts and events, and gives just the right amount of background for the reader to appreciate the details of the poetry that follows.
Given that the book is An Oratorio, Undark provides a “Dramatis Personae,” which includes Sappho, the famous ancient Greek lyric poet, Nox, a woman in her 60s reminiscent of Marie Curie, Radium Women, a group of factory workers ranging in age from 11-45, Undark, a propaganda radio personality, a Chorus, described as “a sea of light,” Sabin, the aforementioned inventor of Undark, and Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt, who, (according to Wikipedia), “reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she is also known as ‘the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.’” Using different writing styles for different speakers, Undark masterfully weaves together the multiple voices and modes of writing to create a global, epic, and truly dramatic account of the Radium Girls and the history of the Undark paint.
For example, the poems in the voice of Sappho and Hatshepsut scatter bits of text, laden with square brackets, across the page, reminiscent of transcriptions of ancient fragments. These poems, written under the names of the famous poet and ruler whose works and legacies are obscured by time (or even by the physical decay of the material on which they wrote, or on which records about them were written) provide an inventive and astute commentary on the obscured history of the women who lost their health and lives working with the Undark paint—the erasure of the text mimics the erasure not only of their story, but also of their bodies and lives. Given that Sappho and Hatshepsut are still known to us today, however, these poems also suggest that the Radium Girls deserve to be remembered, if imperfectly through second-hand accounts and interpretations. By selecting two such historically important women as speakers, Undark implies that the experience of the Radium Girls is an important event in women’s history, emblematic of a particular era yet still relevant today—perhaps as a statement on the condition of women in a capitalist labour market, which I will explore further in this review.
Other styles of writing in the book include found or cut-up poems in the voice of Undark, composed using material from advertisements for Undark paint. Not all poems in the book are clearly attributed to a speaker, so I may have this one wrong, but there are also prose poems, written beneath a line towards the bottom of blank pages, probably in the voice of the Chorus. Finally, many of the poems in Undark are narrative poems, composed as though they are lyric poems written from the point of view of the Radium Women, Nox, and Sabine. These poems, though not necessarily the bulk of the text, certainly dominate Undark, forming the linear narrative that frames the styles and voices of the other poems. The blend of voices and writing styles in Undark is absolutely effortless, allowing a coherently integrated, multifaceted presentation of the topic.
As for the actual content of the poems, the book moves smoothly, ominously from a sense of wonderment with the luminous paint, to a mood of dread and desperation as its users begin to fall ill. Undark is gripping, and triggers a very real, very visceral empathy with the Radium Girls, and, unexpectedly, with Von Sochocky. At the beginning of the book we find the workers enthralled with the seemingly magical paint, with their glowing teeth (from licking the brushes), and their clothes, glowing in the dark where the paint flecks have landed on them. We also meet a tragically innocent and naïve Sabine, in awe of his luminous invention, and hopeful for all its potential uses. As the book progresses, however, it is not only the Radium Girls who suffer but Sabine as well, whose own illness is chronicled, as well as his crushing guilt and regret for creating the paint that would ultimately kill the women, as well as ultimately killing him. In contrast, the found/cut-up poems in the voice of Undark are steady in tone and devoid of any real remorse. The final poem from this speaker implicitly acknowledges the illnesses and deaths caused by Undark paint, but the speaker looks to the future where the paint can be modified and used in manufacturing items once again. The contrast between the tone of the lyric-like narrative poems and the Undark poems is eerie and disturbing. As I suggested earlier, Undark seems to position the Radium Girls significant figures in the history of women. The human voices and emotions of Sabine, Nox, and the Radium Women clash with the upbeat, impersonal tone of Undark. This disparity in tone is emotionally effective, but also underscores the abuse of women workers under capitalism, just as other poems detail the Radium Girls’ inability to win compensation from the U.S. Radium Co. in court.
There are numerous metaphors and images that reoccur throughout Undark, gradually developing and taking on meaning as the story progresses, but the most thoroughly explored is that of time. Undark is full of ticking clocks, the licking and ticking of paintbrushes, ticking or licking hearts, and a deeply developed exploration of the relationship between the Radium Girls’ job painting clock faces, the march of time, and death. The relationship between discrete time, labour, and death is also explored, further reinforcing the potential for Undark to be read as an evocative and human critique of exploitative, gendered capitalist labour practices. This discourse on time is reminiscent of the invasive and traumatic intrusion of discrete time experienced by workers in the Victorian era, with the shift from agrarian work based on seasonal changes and sunlight to factory work based on discrete time and electric lighting, which can be seen in factory rules—for example, factory rules that include statements such as: “The normal working day begins at all seasons at 6 A.M. precisely and ends, after the usual break of half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea, at 7 P.M., and it shall be strictly observed....” (Scroll down to see the section “Discipline in the New Factories”). The story of the Radium Girls is exemplary of the invasiveness of discrete time, given that the workers were involved in the manufacturing of clocks and watches, and given that time invaded not only their work lives, but their physical bodies as the paint they used in the making of clocks poisoned them. The relationship of artificial lighting to this shift is also exemplified in this situation, given that the poisonous paint glows in the dark. This is most clearly seen in the poem “1912,” in the voice of Undark:
With the coming of electric light, it seemed, the last
step in illumination had been taken. But, already,
there is a supplement. No longer are electric
light, the light of lamps, or candles necessary
to see things in the dark. Undark shows
them to you. Manufacturers recognize
the value of Undark. They have been painting
it on everything. No longer is it necessary to grope
aimlessly for a switch; the switch itself shines.
Adding to the drama, dread, and inevitability of the plight of the Radium Women and Sabine, the bottom of many pages of Undark have times that gradually count down to 00:00:00:000 by the end of the book.
In Undark, the potential of the tragic tale of the Radium Girls to become a lasting and emblematic part of women’s history is solidified by the ending of the book, through the character of Nox, the “woman in her late sixties, reminiscent of Marie Curie.” Besides Marie Curie being an important, lasting historical figure herself, Nox is a timeless character in Undark, with her first entry dated 1905, and her second to last entry dated 2011 (her last entry, “Nox, Epilogue,” is not dated). In her second to last entry, Nox contemplates the vacant radium dial factory in Toronto, and in doing so explicitly links the historical events of the story to the present. The short, two line ‘Epilogue,’ reads simply, “Since then I’ve hated / the dark. I never turn off the lights.” These closing words create a sense that the tragedy of the Radium Girls echoes through time, a noteworthy black mark on this history of women in the workforce and the violence that capitalism can and has perpetrated on the bodies of workers. The relationship between capitalism and the sexualized bodies of women workers is also apparent elsewhere in Undark, where the U.S. Radium Corporation accuses the women of being ill because they have syphilis, and where the sexual partners of the factory workers suggest that the women should paint an unspecified part of their body, probably their genitalia, with the Undark paint (the workers speaking as “we” and the partners referred to as “he”):
…We come, dead tired
to bed, slip into place. We’ve painted our teeth again,
and we laugh until he kisses us, tells us
there are other places we could paint, nuzzles
All of this to say, Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio is a smart, carefully wrought, brilliant book, and a significant contribution to contemporary poetry. A remarkably engaging volume, Undark is a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to delve into critically—this is a book that warrants and rewards serious scholarly attention. And finally, the cover glows in the dark… just in case I haven’t sold you on it yet.