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Likely Stories: The Robot Scientist's Daughter

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Poetry about living near Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, and her poetry has appeared on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner.  The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is her fourth collection of poems.  She grew up near Oak Ridge National Labs, where her father worked on robots to deal with nuclear waste.  Her childhood home now lies under a gigantic concrete slab.  Jeannine was my mentor and model for poetry in my MFA.  She liked my poetry, and I admired hers.  This recently published collection of poems deals with her childhood near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), birthplace of the nuclear age.  She describes the horrific side effects she and nearby residents suffered as deadly poisons such as cesium, strontium, plutonium, and uranium turned plants, animals, crops and, cow’s milk and even mud daubers into deadly vectors of those poisons.  She handles her situation with grace and notes of caution.

I liked many of the poems in this collection, but one stood out for me among all my favorites.  In graduate school, I briefly flirted with chaos theory as applied to literature.  In her poem, “Chaos Theory,” she writes, “Elbow deep in the guts of tomatoes, / I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand. / DNA patterns bloomed like frost.  Ordering / chaos was my father’s talisman; he hated / imprecision, how in language the word / is never exactly the thing itself. // He told us about the garden of the janitor / at the Fernald Superfund site, where mutations burgeoned / in the soil like fractal branching.  The dahlias and tomatoes / he showed to my father, doubling and tripling in size / and variety, magentas, pinks, and reds so bright / they blinded, churning offspring gigantic and marvelous./.from that ground sick with uranium.  The janitor smiled / proudly.  My father nodded, unable to translate / for him the meaning of all this unnatural beauty. // In his mind he watched the man’s DNA unraveling, / patching itself together again with wobbling sentry / enzymes.  When my father brought this story home, / he never mentioned the janitor’s slow death from radiation / poisoning, only those roses, those tomatoes” (33).

I can only hope that when we do free ourselves from fossil fuels, we do not insert deadly poisons into our land, sky, water, crops, animals, and our lungs.  In his monumental work, Poetics, Aristotle wrote, “Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  I believe this sums up Jeannine Hall Gailey’s latest collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter.  She uses the “singular” event of poisoning our planet as a cautionary tale for the widespread and deadly effects of nuclear power.  Take up some, or better yet all, of Gailey’s work, and perhaps you will have a different view of our world and the safety of our planet.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  You can find this and other episodes on the website KWBU.org.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.