With The Robot Scientist's Daughter, Jeannine Hall Gailey moves dexterously between speculative and literary genres, drawing from and building upon autobiographical elements. She consistently navigates topical themes, employing bold metaphors and memorable images, her voice a significant addition to the feminist canon. In her opening piece, "Cesium Burns Blue," she introduces the tonal and thematic strands that weave and interweave throughout this book:
Someone is lying on a grassy hill,
counting shooting stars,
wondering what happens
when they hit the ground.
A reader is struck by Gailey's Romantic strain, how she conjures a quintessentially pastoral scene, her Rockwellian depiction of "grass" and "shooting stars." The lines are almost Proustian in their glorification of old-fashioned curiosity, an individual life implicitly rightsized when compared to infinity. One can almost hear the quaintly theistic question "who created all this?" sounding in the background.
And the poem's closing:
Cesium lights the rain,
is absorbed in the skin,
dancing away, ticking away
in bones, fingernails, brain.
Sick burns through, burns blue.
The Romantic trance is shattered; Gailey alludes to the postindustrial abuse of nature and by extension human life, the myriad environmental and genetic ravages of the past sixty plus years. In this single poem, Gailey both conjures her own version of the prelapsarian garden and offers a speculative/sci-fi commentary that advances the traditions and themes of dystopian literature.
Gailey continues to mine this tension, an often disturbing hybridization of beauty and horror, the consequences of human irresponsibility manifesting in environmental and biological terms. In the final stanza of "The Robot Scientist's Daughter [villainess]," she writes:
What they sowed in the ground isn't gone;
it's in the mouths of their children when they chew
the weeds. Their children grow reedy
and anemic, their needy fists clenching,
skipping grades and affronting the public.
Any day now. We're watching.
Gailey translates classic apocalyptic references into rural imagery, backwoods America into the setting for an end-times scenario, a new sub-breed of children raised on the poison buried in the earth. These are not the benignly intuitive indigo kids of the pseudoscientific New Age, but rather genetic and psychological anomalies, "anemic" humanoids with "clenched fists" who wield a potentially destructive and exacting intelligence, carrying within their cells the rage of the mistreated planet.
In other poems, Gailey's content is less overtly speculative, drawing upon more familiar and quotidian details, almost as if she's writing in response to a newspaper article. In "Oak Ridge is a Mystery," Gailey mines her personal experience and writes about the lab where her father worked as a nuclear-waste consultant. She closes the poem with a memorable description:
Oak Ridge is a mystery; the dark place in the earth
where poisons are buried, where the worms do their work.
How the grass raises its head even though it carries
a heavy metallurgical load. How the trout and catfish tackle
the brooks down the hillside stacked with mud. The wings
of the wasp and the swallow whirring: Keep Out.
The Robot Scientist's Daughter is in part an elegy to the past, perhaps primarily a lament for the present, and certainly an admonition for the future; however, it's also Gailey's elevation of her own story into an origin myth, the poetic apotheosis of a particular life into that of an iconic feminist persona. Indeed Gailey has often explored this direction; for example, in "Job Requirements: A Supervillain's Advice" from her first collection Becoming the Villainess (2006):
Grow up near a secret nuclear testing site.
Think Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, North and South Dakota
are riddled with them. Your father—is he
an eccentric scientist of some sort? Did you
show early signs of a "supergenius" IQ?
In 2011's She Returns to the Floating World, Gailey explored similar content, writing in "Chaos Theory": "Elbow-deep in the guts of tomatoes, / I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand. / DNA patterns bloomed like frost." And with 2013's Unexplained Fevers, she revised classic folklore, including the stories of Snow White, Alice, Rapunzel, and Red Riding Hood, among others. In "Red Riding Hood at the Car Dealer," for example, Gailey inverts the familiar tale, in a way reminiscent of Plath's treatment of Lazarus, transmogrifying Red Riding Hood into the predator, the wolf into the prey, revising the original, innocent-girl-victimized-by-the-representation-of-testosterone-gone-awry into a modern crime story a la True Detective, the ingénue cast as the serial killer in virgin's garb:
She smiled back
at the wolf, told him she liked his tail,
while fingering what appeared to be a long knife.
She tugged at the neckline of her red sweater,
Is that the best you can do? She asked, batting
her car keys. I'm leaving on a road trip
to Grandma's, wanna come with? The wolf
senses danger, despite the daisy appliques on her purse.
With The Robot Scientist's Daughter, Gailey has continued to mature as a poet, her alchemizing of the personal into the universal occurring for the most part seamlessly and without the hints of hyperbole or reliance on stock tropes occasionally encountered in previous work. In "The Robot Scientist's Daughter [apocalyptic]," for example, her persona, now a twenty-first century every-girl or even anti-every-girl (in terms of a contemporary zeitgeist, the two are more synonymous than antonymous), "has always been enamored of apocalypse. / . . . She thinks the explosions are beautiful; / she still thinks the snow piling around her is safe." In "Phosphorous Girl," she "is the shadow in white dust you left behind. / . . . She dreams of Akira and Chernobyl as she sleeps / by slow rivers that run with fertilizer and green shampoo." And in "The Robot Scientist's Daughter [Polonium-210]," Gailey takes the transcendent leap, her subject now fomenting as a subatomic saboteur, less Neo and more Smith from The Matrix, a modern-day mercenary presented in biochemical terms. Gailey's persona
is a tightly-controlled molecule.
Sometimes she threatens
to explode into antimatter,
to shatter the equilibrium.
. . .
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.
Throughout this collection, Gailey functions as a spokesperson for a generation that witnessed the perils of the Cold War, enduring the threat of nuclear annihilation; and which now faces, indeed helped to facilitate, the realities of climate change and environmental holocaust. Drawing on her background and familial connection to the science that both ushered us into the digital and post-digital ages and may in part be responsible for our eventual extinction, Gailey addresses, in poem after poem, both the fundamental miracle of life and the tragedy of intelligence mismanaged. She closes her collection with "Interpreting Signs in Appalachia," a piece that effectively employs the third-person device and reads hauntingly like a eulogy (poem quoted in its entirety):
In this story, a girl grows up surrounded
by abnormal blooms, pea shoots and peonies.
She learns to ride ponies, goes barefoot
in the treacherous grass. Sickly, she dreams
in the arms of apple trees, spits out their green piths.
It's likely her thyroid grew to the size
of a poisoned apple, that her blood ran hot,
that her hair grew long with trace metals.
It's likely you won't find her happy ending here,
sewn into the silent concrete. Look to the swallows—
they carry their mythic toxins in the walls of their nests,
tucked into nooks, hidden between stones. Search
for clues to the mystery, follow the green light
of foxfire into the sides of mountains, beneath silos.
Listen for the crackle underground.
Gailey paints an alternative Eden to end her collection: again the rural world, perennially symbolic of natural and human purity, now associated with "abnormal blooms" and "poisoned apple[s]," the long hair of the archetypal innocent infected "with trace metals." The nests of birds are replete with "mythic toxins," the mountains gleaming with "green light." The word "silos" echoes in the mind of the reader after the penultimate line is processed. The final line, the closing of the book, stresses the damage that has already been wreaked and foreshadows the nightmarish changes still to come. Gailey has offered a well-paced, vivid, and searing sequence of poems, her reminder that life is exquisite, even as it transforms, mutates, and devolves, even as we betray what might have been our destiny for another and less auspicious destiny, a crisis we may be unable to elude.
John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books). He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.
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