BRIN SANFORD Reviews
The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey
(Mayapple Press, Woodstock, New York, 2015)
“In my back yard in Oak Ridge,
They lit cesium
To measure the glow.
Hold it in your hand:
Foxfire, wormwood, glow worm.”
—Jeannine Hall Gailey, “Cessium Burns Blue”
In her autobiography Marie Curie wrote of the joy she felt sneaking down in the night to observe the “faint, fairy lights” of her radioactive workroom, her papers still too poisonous to be read without special equipment. Gailey’s book of poetry The Robot Scientist’s Daughter has that same dangerous and luminous effect.
The world that Gailey builds between these pages twists the nuclear and what we view as the natural together like mutated strands of DNA. Sunflowers pull poison from the ground, the forest glows with bioluminescence, the milk will make you sick.
In this same twisting way Gailey blends her poems between autobiography and fiction, drawing her title and inspiration through the familiar character of the scientist’s beautiful daughter. Examining our radioactive world through the lens of her childhood at Oakridge, she invites us to empathize and understand her life through references to classic sci-fi. We need the image of the maybe metallic, maybe organic woman to “enter [the scientist’s] laboratory with a sympathetic eye”.
Gailey pulls this off by writing with an odd balance of sterility and dirt, affecting both her real life and that of her fictional self. “Plutonium among the tulips, /polonium in the desert, cesium in the cow’s milk.” Both her selves grow up playing chess against computers, eating wild strawberries and chewing sassafras. They have on the margins of their lives a parade of neighborhood dogs or an unceasing string of cloned lassies.
As the robot scientist’s daughter she is 1950’s personified with her beehive blonde hair, perfect makeup and manners. “Sometimes the robot scientist’s daughter pretends to be/ a robot herself, handing out food efficiently without/ smudging her makeup. Sometimes she turns out to be a robot all along”. The scientist’s daughter loves her father, is loyal, and shares his love of science. She is his protégé and she will almost always betray him. The presumably real life Gailey builds Radio Shack machines and completes her first computer class at seven to impress her father.
Dog earring the pages I try to reduce the poems to statistics. Mathematically do I prefer scientific fact or fantasy? I thought at first I was drawn more to Gailey’s poems of growing up in an atomic city beneath towering reactors but later I was enticed by the pop gun flash of robots and evil scientists. It’s tempting to draw a stern line between the supposedly masculine world of science and the feminine ‘mother nature’ that Gailey gleefully explores in her childhood. Gailey however denies the simplicity of drawing a parallel between these worlds. With bees building their hives with radioactive mud and extract of Madagascar periwinkle killing cancer cells it is instead better to read her two mythologies the way they are presented in the book, not separate but woven among each other.
Brin Sanford lives in New York and has been a newspaper intern, freelance copyeditor, telemarketer, and deli worker. She has not been a very good vegetarian. She studied creative writing at Alfred University where she got her degree in English and has more saved drafts than actual tweets. Her work has been published in the anthology What Kind of Trouble.