The Robot Scientist’s Daughter
The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Mayapple Press, 2015
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
You know from the cover and title of this book that you’re in for something special, and maybe very scary. On the cover, there’s a beautiful little girl with a bow in her hair and a robotic interior. Is she human or machine? What’s keeping her alive? Her portrait is set against a background of golden butterflies in a grape arbor, beautiful the way a mechanical golden nightingale is beautiful, not a real nightingale, not alive—instead, a priceless reminder of a real nightingale. Are the leaves and fruit and creatures of the real world gone, remembered only in art?
Gailey’s Author’s Note identifies these poems as rooted in the poet’s actual upbringing as a robot scientist’s daughter downwind of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her father “consulted on nuclear waste cleanup, specifically, robotics-based ways to clean up nuclear waste.” The ORNL was part of the Manhattan Project and the first nuclear bomb dropped on Japan was built here, surrounded by farmland and the mixed beauty and poverty of Appalachia.
The Robot Scientist’s Daughter herself is a persona, part autobiography, part popular culture composite comprised of depictions of scientists, daughters, and mutants in fiction, science fiction, and comics. She appears in third person lineated and prose poems throughout the book, alongside poems with an “I” speaker, who gives her a personal voice. It makes for a fascinating and deeply frightening read, as the nuclear waste has significant effects on the environment and on the humans and animals and plants living in that environment, which, given the nature of nuclear waste, is, of course, our shared global environment as well as this local one, and for a long time. Reading this book of poetry is like reading Living Downstream, a nonfiction book by Sandra Steingraber, also a poet, about the likely but hard-to-prove effects of industrial and agricultural pollution on our environment and our health. It’s chilling to the bone.
Gailey’s poems here are radioactive in image and in psychological resonance. She can use dark puns to great effect, as she does here in lines from “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [Polonium-210]”:
She is extremely unstable. She is toxic;
inhaling or consumption can lead to death.
She is considered fairly volatile.
She can be contained within paper.
She glows bright blue. She is a showstopper.
That blue glow hovers throughout the book, in foxfire in the woods, in cesium in the ground from which trees and flowers grow, even in the robot scientist’s daughter’s translucent skin. A terrible irony arises from geography and coincidence, the Foxfire survival-in-the-wild books being part of her upbringing, as in the poem “The Foxfire Books: In Case of Emergency, Learn to Make Glass,” containing these stanzas:
In case of poisoning, eat this. In case of war,
hide underground. I learned to purify water,
named edible leaves, in case, in case, in case.
It seemed as if the trees themselves were letting
in the light for me, as if I might lead people to safety.
I remember folding white sheets next to a Geiger counter.
Oil reserves burning up. It was the seventies.
My grandparents sent books of Appalachian rituals:
sassafras tea, planting peas by moonlight, sewing up
the land. It seemed natural, then, that our woods
would grow glowing mushrooms, that it was the fire
of foxes, and we believed it could be appeased.
But it couldn’t. As these poems demonstrate, everything that might have been safe, was instead dangerous, poisoned, treacherous; what might have insured survival instead insures its opposite.
It’s a dangerous game, like “tickling the dragon,” the title of a poem about Louis Slotin, who died of radiation poisoning after an accident in the lab.
They could still see that blue glow around him,
feel the heat wave from beryllium meeting plutonium
core. His retching, then nine days of futile blood
transfusions. “A bomb putter-togetherer,” he called
himself, though the bomb would take him apart
atom by atom. After this, they began to use robots;
they wanted to find a way to keep a man’s hands
from touching the demon core of this dragon.
And that’s why they needed robot scientists. And their daughters.
Jeannine Hall Gailey at EIL