Jeannine Hall Gailey's fourth full-length collection of poetry, The Robot Scientist's Daughter, is a part coming-of-age exploration of the poet's life growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, part critical look at nuclear history in America. It's a departure from Gailey's previous collections, which often convey retellings of traditional fairy tales and stories of women in popular culture. Yet, fans of Gailey's work will be happy to see that her exploration of the fantastic has not disappeared in her newest book, as she travels back in time to use both personal narratives and segments of American history to explore our love/hate relationship with nuclear power.
Gailey opens her collection with an author's note explaning some autobiographical material, and thus, the genesis of the book. The Robot Scientist's Daughter, who waves her way in and out of this collection is fictional in some aspects, but as Gailey notes, she "also shares many charactertisitcs with me." Many of the Robot Scientist Daughter's poems display surreal elements, helping to explain her role in this Nuclear World. For instance, in one poem, she is a medical wonder with "nails made of plastic and paper mache" and "one kidney curled inside her ribs, her blood trying/to escape." In another poem, she explores the image of the woman in popular culture nuclear films: "The robot scientist's daughter must be there/to humanize the robot scientist; he is both a protagonist/we identify with and a villain we know must fail." In yet another poem, we see the Robot Scientist's daughter journey west, away from her childhood home: "She's a bit of an alien here in the land/of tanned legs and blonde hair, beaches/and bongo drums."
Still, many poems leave this surreal world behind in more concrete, narrative writing. In one poem, "The Taste of Rust in August" the narrator, as she licks "lampposts, iron grates, jewelry" for the rust flavor, laments her own complexion, which is "dull and transparent as wax paper." In another poem, "Death by Drowning" she recounts an incident where she almost drowns: "I cannot float/merely thrash six feet underwater. If only I was a smooth/sleek sale, a dolphin, a mermaid, if ony vestigial gills/might open." In yet another poem, "The Girls Next Door" the narrator describes her neighbors who taught her how "to curl her bangs," "put on lipstick," and "tuck a rose" behind her ear. Oak Ridge also becomes its own character in several poems including "Oak Ridge, Tennessee" where the poet describes a world tht is "Always things hovering over us -- mountains, thunderstorms/a poisoned valley. Lightning bouncing across the yard/Bees swarming a horse. My father strode off to work/with government-issue TLD cards and a black suit/How much radiation today?/The card would tell him, but he knew it lied."
Finally, infused throughout the book are glimpses of America's relationship with the nuclear power. One poem looks at the role women played in 1945 secret city, while another poem references Dr. Manhattan, a comic book character from The Watchmen. More current history is also included, with many poems alluding to the devastation surrounding Fukushima. Even the mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, makes an appearance in this collection!
THe official release date for The Robot Scientist's Daughter is March 1, but preorders are already being taken. See Mayapple Press for information. See also Gailey's website for information about this book as well as her previous books.
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