Review: The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Book Cover Photo

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,
unstable, unstable,
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.)

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Review: The Eye of Caroline Herschel by Laura Long

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Regular readers know I don’t write many reviews for this blog. While I keep a reading journal, but generally, I keep my reactions and opinions private. But when Laura Long, a fellow member of the WOM-PO listserv, put out a call for reviews for her recent chapbook, I was intrigued. And not just because I get excited to encounter other poets published by Finishing Line Press.

The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems is many things for such a small book, and managed to hit several points of interest for me right from the start. First, I’m always interested in fictional autobiography/biography; it’s something I studied extensively in college, and still excites me to this day. Second, I’m always fascinated by poems about science and math (even though math is perhaps my weakest subject, and I barely held my GPA together during high school chemistry). And finally, a the chapbook is all based around the life of an eighteenth-century female astronomer, and work that raises new awareness about women in science is always worth a look.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Herschel_Caroline_1829.jpg)
Source: Wikimedia Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Herschel_Caroline_1829.jpg)

So who was Caroline Herschel? In the nineteenth century, she was a serious contributor to the field of astronomy, discovering a number of comets, including the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. In addition, she expanded upon the star catalog developed by John Flamsteed, correcting discrepancies in his work and adding several hundred stars of her own.

Born in Hanover in 1750, joined her brother, William, in England in 1772. William Herschel had been supporting himself as a musician, but became fascinated by astronomy, and taught Caroline mathematics so that she could assist him in discovery. They worked in collaboration for a number of years, and served in the position of King’s Astronomer. Although their collaborative relationship faltered after William’s marriage, Caroline continued her work independently, and received major honors for her her discoveries. She died in 1848.

But back to the book. The Eye of Caroline Herschel consists of twenty-one poems written from Caroline’s perspective, starting at age sixteen, and ending with her ghost. We experience her discoveries, her successes, and her frustrations. While Caroline destroyed her diaries later in life, and there is limited biographical information to work with, you won’t leave this collection feeling as though you’ve read fiction. While this chapbook might not always be factual in terms of what Caroline was thinking or feeling, it most certainly feels true. You come away with a sense that you actually know her. But then again, while much has changed since Caroline Herschel died, women still have tumultuous relationships with family, and definitely still face struggles in the face of work. Plus, it’s 2014 and women still have not achieved equality in science fields. Caroline Herschel was an eighteenth-century woman, but her story still resonates today.

As for the poems themselves: what struck me, first and foremost, was the way the book opened and the way the book closed. It’s not always easy to have equally powerful openings and endings. But “Caroline Talks Back to the Poets” and “Caroline’s Ghost Speaks” are two of the most intense, forceful, enduring poems of the book.

Rather than tell you about the poems, though, I’d rather share one with you. The title poem is hands-down my favorite in this collection, and Laura Long has given me permission to share it with you here:

The Eye of Caroline Herschel

I cannot stop how I see even though
sunlight floods in to blind me.
Sometimes a comet startles me
in the middle of the day–a ribbon trails

from a woman’s sleeve, the tail
of a cat slithers beneath a chair,
a bloom at the loose end of a morning
glory vine wavers from the fence

into the breeze. I stare at the flowers
erupting from green. Each blossom
is a comet sprung from seed, flaring
a tingle of scent that bees wobble around

in drunk orbits. The air is shot through
with erased paths. Every spot of darkness
waits to be stung open by light, as a string
on a violin waits to be touched.

What I love about this poem is the way it renders the ordinary extraordinary. Sleeves, flowers, musical instruments, are all imbued with the awesome power of a comet hurtling through space. Everyday things rendered magnificent if you know how to look. That, to me, is what poetry is all about in the first place.

So go read this book. And then consider where you find cosmic brilliance in your own day-to-day life. I know I see comets now in the swirl of flour on the wooden board I use to roll out pita bread. And the arc of two dancers moving around the floor. And the shape a kung fu artist takes when striking with a sword.