16 April 2015

The Robot Scientist's Daughter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Many of the poems in this book are iterations of the poet's own life. Jeannine Hall Gailey spent her childhood in Tennessee, in the shadow of her father's workplace, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, incubator and nursery to nuclear experiments that included the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  The neighborhood where she grew up has since been razed and paved over, but the poet recalls the way the old perils affected the child and the woman.

Like other children, she was taught not to eat poisonous plants - lily of the valley, hemlock - 

But she didn't learn that the swallow's nest,
the frog, the mud-dauber wasp nest, the milk from cows,
the white-tailed deer, the catfish were full of hot particles.
Her father brought out the Geiger counter to measure
her snowmen and teach her the snow, too, wasn't
safe enough to taste.

As a child, 

She knows the click of the Geiger counter
better than her own heart, which moans
and swings unlike any machine.

Her father's Geiger counter click-clicked
its swaying tongue at me.

Her mother worries that she is becoming morbid:

... the girl hides underground, pretending
to be a troll or a witch, She puts leaves in her hair
and collects fossils, lining them up to spell words,
the swirling trilobite, the imprints of the mysterious dead.

As an adult, she tells of the aftermath of nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima, where "Sunflowers planted in hope, in the name of the dead / fail to purify the earth... Still, they are tended." Ordinary landscapes become shifted and exotic with "blue glass butterflies born eyeless," and where "metal faces of new radiation detection signs / appear next to the crumpled worn idols of stone."

These stone idols may turn our thoughts to Shelley's "Ozymandias."  "Tickling the Dragon" evokes W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts."  "About suffering they were never wrong," says Auden, showing us Breughel's painting of Icarus falling into the sea: a cosmic catastrophe that is virtually ignored by the townspeople.  

Gailey replaces the Auden's "Old Masters" with "old comics," showing us a comic, line-drawing of a very real and catastrophic accident involving a scientist whose hubris caused him to use a screwdriver in an experiment with deadly beryllium and plutonium. His gruesome death by radiation, like the bravado of Icarus, is now an everyday accommodation to reality: man can not, unaided, touch the sky, or the 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."  Either way, however, the small and invisible can be humanity's undoing.

These poems are funny and matter-of -fact, filled with imagery and plain, down-to-earth and science-fictional. They are both haunting and interesting. I am very glad to have been given the opportunity to discover them.

Thank you to Serena Agusto-Cox of Poetic Book Tours and Savvy Verse and Wit for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for The Robot Scientist's Daughter. You can read more about the poet and the poetry at Jeannine Hall Gailey's site.


Serena said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed reading this collection. I love her poems.

Create With Joy said...

This sounds like an amazing collection of poetry! Thanks for writing such a vivid review!

I would love for you to join us at The Book Nook at Create With Joy and share this book with us!

Have a lovely weekend!

Create With Joy