NC Literary Hall of Fame



A Quarrel of Atoms by Kathy Ackerman

St. Andrews University Press
$9.99, paperback
ISBN: 978-1733803052
September, 2019
Available from

"In the spare, passionate language with which she limned the women of Appalachia in Coal River Road, Kathy Ackerman illuminates the history of the Curies and the miracles and horrors birthed by the discovery of radium. These fine poems broaden our understanding of the Curie family, which then becomes a mirror of the poet's—mother and mother, daughter and daughter, grief and gray grief, 'the moon folding her arm across her face.'"
—Valerie Nieman, author of Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse

"Kathy Ackerman’s brilliantly titled A Quarrel of Atoms takes the reader on an investigative, historical journey. The sequence of persona poems reveals the Nobel-winning Curie family’s discovery of radium, as told largely by Marie Curie, and concerns the lives of her siblings, husband, daughters, and their social circle. The close of the book moves into this century, with the death of the writer’s mother from cancer and the irony juxtaposed against the poems that contextualize it, since radium poisoning was part of the price that Marie Curie paid. The sequence reads like a novel in its breadth: the occupation of Poland by Russia, the death of the Tsar, the wedding of Princess Diana. Some of the phrasing is luminous: 'a quarrel of sparrows,' or in a poem on the death of Pierre Curie, 'Your brilliant mind was crushed entirely / by a wheel. At a curb. In the rain.' In an early poem Marie states, 'Our hands are swift birds sweeping Polish books into our aprons.' The poems range emotionally, from the poignant, to the frightening, to the wry, even comic, in language that is accessible, intense and moving. 'Our fingertips inflamed for days / until the skin shreds away.' 'I want roses pinned to my waist,' says Marie Curie of winning the Nobel, but I happily pin roses to Ackerman’s waist for this book."
—Tina Barr, author of Brockman-Campbell Award winner, Green Target

"This is a book of astonishment and wonder. I was hesitant at first—poems about science and scientific history can often seem cold and distant. Not so with A Quarrel of Atoms. This finely written collection breathes with human life—with awe, with the doubts we all feel in making decisions (whether we are scientists or poets). It reads like a novel, has the drama of a stage production, yet the poems are lyrical and precise. The book is a love affair with Marie Curie, and we're invited along for the investigation that compels us into a life of inquiry and curiosity."
—Allison E. Joseph, author of Confessions of a Barefaced Woman

Through persona poems written from the point of view of Madame (Marie) Curie, this collection explores the inner life of the remarkable scientist and the impact, for better and worse, of her discovery of radium.

Kathy Ackerman's other books include Coal River Road, The Heart of Revolution, and three poetry chapbooks. She lives on the edge of Polk County on a loblolly tree-farm-in-progress with her husband of 35 years and the world’s sweetest cat. She earned a Ph.D in literature from the University of South Carolina, a Master’s in English from the UNC-Charlotte, and a Bachelor’s from Bowling Green State University. Currently, she serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences and Writer-in-Residence at Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC, home of the incomparable WNCW radio.

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