The places we love most in life can harm us as well as sustain us. Childhood can be idyllic and beautiful, but even the most bucolic towns can have lurking dangers. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is a collection that is part science-fiction fairy tale and part revelation. Drawing on her childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennesse (also known as The Atomic City), Gailey sheds light on a piece of American scientific history that you might have not learned about in school. Gailey was the daughter of a researcher at the Oak Ridge nuclear site. The town, as it turns out, was toxic, tainted by nuclear waste. The Robot Scientist’s Daughter brings us a beautiful, magical place with a horror story lying beneath. It will break your heart, and it will make you think.
While The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is a fairy tale composed in poetry, the book I thought of most while I was reading it was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Bradbury didn’t just write compelling science fiction. He also composed fantastical stories that touched on the ways in which childhood is magical and beautiful, but also dangerous, fraught, and terrifying. Gailey’s poems reflect a love for Oak Ridge, but also an acknowledgement of the dangers and horrors that came from living in a town that had basically been poisoned by the nuclear research site there. There is fantastic beauty in the janitor’s overgrown tomatoes and flower; there is also terror when you realize the flora is overgrown due to radiation, and that the janitor is slowly dying of radiation poisoning.
One of the difficulties of politically-motivated poetry is how to get the point across without being polemical. Gailey does that masterfully in this collection. She doesn’t have to yell at us about the ways in which nuclear waste is harmful, about the fact that nuclear power is dangerous. We see it in the sick children, the dying researchers, the land perhaps irreparably corrupted. While it seems that energy debates have been going on my entire life, and while I have heard many people extol the virtues of nuclear power, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is a collection that made me think. It compelled me to research and learn. At its best, political poetry forces you to consider what you have known, learn, and change.
It is hard to pick a favorite poem from this book. So many of them left me stunned, shocked, or on the verge of tears. “Cesium Burns Blue” is, I think, one of the definitive poems in this book:
Cesium Burns Blue
Copper burns green. Sodium yellow,
strontium red. Watch the flaming lights
that blaze across your skies, America—
there are burning satellites
even now being swallowed by your horizon,
the detritus of space programs long defunct,
the hollowed masterpieces of dead scientists.
Someone is lying on a grassy hill,
counting shooting stars,
wondering what happens
when they hit the ground.
In my back yard in Oak Ridge,
they lit cesium
to measure the glow.
Hold it in your hand:
foxfire, wormwood, glow worm.
Cesium lights the rain,
is absorbed in the skin,
dancing away, ticking away
in bones, fingernails, brain.
Sick burns through, burns blue.
This poem is the cell from which the rest of the book grows. I am struck by how much it contains, and how easily the other poems seem to shape themselves around it.
The Robot Scientist’s Daughter will officially be released on March 1st. You can preorder it at Mayapple Press. (Which you should definitely do. Not just because it’s an amazing collection, but because if you order now you can get it at a fantastic sale price.)