I had the pleasure of reviewing Jeannine Hall Gailey’s third poetry book, Unexplained Fevers for Pedestal Magazine (read the review here) and was thrilled when Jeannine asked me to review her fourth collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. A Generation Xer (yes, a poet from my generation!), Gailey writes sci-fi/fantasy/speculative poetry—a poetry sub-genre I wish more poets would embrace.
For this collection, Gailey reaches into her personal history of growing up five miles downwind of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL), Tennessee; the site of the Manhattan Project. As the eponymous robot scientist’s daughter, Gailey shares the secret history of Atomic City in evocative imagery and language that’s deeply accessible and filled with verbal irony. In fact, everything in this collection is ironic. What is beautiful is ugly or dangerous—what is safe is unsafe. What should be healthy is sick and decaying. The author leaves readers with a clear understanding of what it was like to grow near an atomic testing site with cracked concrete seals, the detrimental effects of cesium (a highly radioactive isotope on the ground water and air) and men in black. Images of radioactive wasps (“Why do they hide underground? / To teach us dangers unseen—to watch our step, to protect, to cover, to dodge.”), strawberries from her family’s farm, rust, and going underground serve as leitmotifs throughout the book—she says, “We don’t fear what we can’t see,” which links her personal history to not only Oak Ridge, but to Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Food imagery is a fantastic way for readers to relate to the complex subject of nuclear testing. In “Chaos Theory,” Gailey beautifully juxtaposes mutant tomatoes with the future decay of this man.
Elbow-deep in the guts of tomatoes,
I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand.
DNA patterns bloomed like frost. Ordering
chaos was my father’s talisman; he hated
imprecision, how in language the word
is never exactly the thing itself.
He told us about the garden of the janitor
at the Fernald Superfund site, where mutations burgeoned
in the soil like fractal branchings. The dahlias and tomatoes
he showed to my father, doubling and tripling in size
and variety, magentas, pinks and reds so bright
they blinded, churning offspring gigantic and marvelous
from that ground sick with uranium. The janitor smiled
proudly. My father nodded, unable to translate
for him the meaning of all this unnatural beauty.
In his mind he watched the man’s DNA unraveling,
patching itself together again with wobbling sentry
enzymes. When my father brought this story home,
he never mentioned the janitor’s slow death from radiation
poisoning, only those roses, those tomatoes.
The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is a love letter to the author’s father and profession (a relationship common in sci-fi movies), a complicated love letter to Gailey’s childhood home which no longer exists, and a protest against environmental and social indifference when it comes to the effects of nuclear power. Those who were employed at Oak Ridge don’t talk about their work there, nor do they need rescue (“They do not discuss cancer/at the breakfast table. They might suffer and die, / but they do so in respectable silence.”). Jeannine Hall Gailey takes on the responsibility of bringing the conversation about the dangers of nuclear research to the foreground, and that is why The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is valuable literature.
More about Jeannine Hall Gailey:
Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and is the author of three other books of poetry: Unexplained Fevers, She Returns to the Floating World and Becoming the Villainess. Her work has been featured on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily and was included in The Year’s Best Horror. Her poems have appeared The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her website is www.webbish6.com.
Pick up your copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s book HERE