Jeannine Hall Gailey’s fourth poetry collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, reanimates the haunting world of 1970s Oak Ridge Valley, Tennessee, where residents lived in the shadow of both the Smoky Mountains and a government nuclear research facility once known as “America’s Secret City.” In an author’s note, Gailey describes her childhood as the daughter of a robotics professor who consulted at the classified Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) and introduces the fictional Robot Scientist’s Daughter of her collection, who she calls “fantastic” but admits shares many of her traits. The poems that make up this collection move in a controlled way between fact and fiction, autobiography and fantasy, giving readers glimpses into the secret world surrounding ORNL in which Gailey grew up, at the same time as they tell the story of a fictional Robot Scientist’s Daughter who was transformed by that world into something other, something monstrous.
I first encountered Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poetry in The Los Angeles Review and Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, and quickly read all three of her full-length collections. What I enjoy most about Gailey’s work is her feminist interrogation of speculative archetypes – such as female fairy tale characters and superheroes in her first book, Becoming the Villainess, or female characters from Japanese folklore in her second book, Unexplained Fevers – which she accomplishes in deceptively simple and beautiful language. The poems in this book are no different, except they do appear at first glance to be more autobiographical than is usual for Gailey. Many of the poems allude to the world Gailey describes in her author’s note, referring to actual historical events that occurred at Oak Ridge. Yet the world of Oak Ridge is strange enough that the resultant poems retain the fantastical elements readers have come to expect in Gailey’s work. In “Cesium Burns Blue,” for example, the lyric poem that opens the collection, the speaker sings,
In my back yard in Oak Ridge,
they lit cesium
to measure the glow.
The speaker goes on to describe how cesium “lights the rain,” is “absorbed in skin,” and is “unstable, unstable.” Her warning song seems intended to caution readers, as well as residents of Oak Ridge where the element was used in experiments, about the dangerous and beautiful element. The Oak Ridge Valley described in Gailey’s poems is a haunting, often almost fantastical place, populated with neon fungi and foxfire, toxic snow and the “tick of radioactive dirt” clueless insects have used to build nests. And yet despite these strange details, or perhaps because of them, the portrait of Oak Ridge Valley in the 1970s that emerges from these poems is particular and real. In “The Foxfire Books: In Case of Emergency, Learn to Make Glass,” the speaker explains how “[i]t seemed natural, then, that our woods/ would grow glowing mushrooms.” Many of these poems carry the tone of exposé, of reportage, as Gailey documents Oak Ridge’s history, testifying to deaths that went unreported and accidents that were kept secret, as well as to the natural beauty of a place which has since been paved over with concrete.
Such testimonial, or documentary, poems are interrupted and complicated by the series of “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” poems, which describe the fictional title character’s childhood in Oak Ridge, then go on to chronicle her mutation. In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [one of us],” the first poem in this series, the townspeople gossip that there was something wrong with the Robot Scientist’s Daughter from the start. They say “[s]he ran around in circles, meowing or mooing,” and gossip about the safe that “was kept/ locked at all times in her house”:
The basement glowed and ticked, and the children
there emerged damaged. The furniture was cracked
and pasted back together—even the flowers in their blooms
knew soon they would be plowed under, left as rubble.
In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [morbid],” we see the girl “hid[ing] underground, pretending/to be a troll or a witch.” In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [villainess],” the townspeople tell us she “grew up with a string of undifferentiated dogs,/ each slightly smarter than the last… They all looked exactly/ like TV’s Lassie, and they were all named Lassie. We suspected them to be prototypes.” As the collection progresses, the Robot Scientist’s Daughter becomes ill from contact with her radioactive environment, and her story becomes more and more fantastical. In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder],” the title character has built herself “a new body, one/ that worked better this time, silver and shiny and smooth/ as mirrored glass.” In “How Not To Be a Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” we are told that opening her up would reveal “a mass of wires instead of a heart… neural networks nothing/ but artificial intelligence.” The story that emerges from these details is weirdly empowering; it is the story of a girl whose body has been damaged by her environment, but who has managed to overcome it by using the technical knowledge she gleaned from that environment to her advantage.
By the end of the collection, the story of the Robot Scientist’s Daughter’s transformation becomes a metaphor not only for the effect of nuclear research on the individual residents of Oak Ridge, but also for the effects of nuclear power on the world as a whole. Poems like “Morning of Sunflowers (for Fukushima)” chronicle in startling and lyric language other cities’ attempts to recover from nuclear accidents: “Two hundred thousand sunflowers/ drink the cesium from the grounds of the temple/ where they burn the names of the dead.” In “Fukushima in Fall: A Field of Sunflowers,” the inability of those sunflowers to draw all the poison from the earth seems to mirror, at first, the inability of Oak Ridge Valley and the Robot Scientist’s Daughter to recover fully from their radiation exposure. Yet this collection is not bleak; the metaphor is complex. By the end of the collection, the “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” has resurrected herself as a “machine who believes/ she is human… perfect, full of light and joy/ she never knew when she was flesh.” Images of light, of course, are hardly innocent in a collection so aware of radiation and nuclear disaster. I cannot read this poem without thinking of the Ray Bradbury story, “2026: And There Will Come Soft Rains.” Yet Gailey describes the resurrected Robot Scientist’s Daughter’s tongue as “alive with lasers.” Her “song attracts/ thousands. She will stop bullets with her steel skin./ She will breathe new life into the species.” In “Advice from the Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” the title character speaks directly to the reader, describing human beings the way she now sees them: “so friable, so prone to overgrowth/ and imbalance.” She reminds the reader “that your atoms right now are smashing against/ the atoms of your chair. What is keeping you together?” In the end, these are the central concerns of Gailey’s newest collection, her most haunting and masterful book yet. In addition to documenting the terrible secrets of Oak Ridge that might otherwise be forgotten, these poems ask how we can “[k]eep from being broken apart./ Keep things from being broken apart. Gather together: thyroid, womb, heart. Build a nest.”