The Robot Scientist's Daughter [ villainess]

The Robot Scientist's Daughter [ villainess]


makes the perfect villainess. The impling can already
assemble solar coils and silicon chips, so make way.
In her hands a piece of paper becomes a bird,
a stack of metal a monster.

She grew up playing chess against the computer,
making aliens stick out their tongues.
She knows the click of the Geiger counter
better than her own heart, which moans
and swings unlike any machine.

She grew up with a string of undifferentiated dogs,
each slighter smarter than the last, each with its tongue
lolling to the side. They all looked exactly
like TV's Lassie, and they were all named Lassie.
We suspected them to be prototypes,
becomes of the spontaneous combustion.
There were always men in black,
always the clicking on the phone line,
and the badges we knew weren't to be trusted.

Like a game of chess, the making of bombs is delicate,
requires planning to assemble and disassemble.
What they sowed in the ground isn't gone;
it's in the mouths of their children when chew
the weeds. Their children grow reedy
and anemic, their needy fists clenching,
skipping grades and affronting the public.
Any day now. We're watching.

Jeannine Hall Gailey
The Robot Scientist's Daughter

The Robot Scientist's Daughter [ villainess]
Jeannine Hall Gailey


what it means

The Robot Scientist's Daughter is a book about the nuclear waste clean-up at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee.  I know (because Gailey tells us in the introduction to the book and the other poems create a bit of a narrative) that Gailey's father was robot scientist working on the clean-up.  The family was a different class than their Appalachian neighbors but just as likely to be poisoned by the nuclear waste.

This poems holds these tensions.  The robot scientist's daughter is strange to the people of the community, has dangerous powers, and perhaps their fears of the men in badges gets displaced onto her.  On other hand, she's eating the poisoned grass too, and she might get what's coming to her for being so dangerous as to skip a grade.  The town is waiting for its revenge.

It's dangerous to be different.

Nuclear waste crosses class lines.

In this myth the villainess is also a victim.

why I like it

I probably picked this poem, of all the poems in the book, for that crazy word "villainess." Galley actually has a book called Becoming the Villianess, so she must like the word too. I'm also tickled by the word "undifferentiated."  Poetry rule #26, the fewer syllables per word the better.  I love it when poets break the rules, and it works.

I like the surreal dropping into the middle of the poem.  Oh those dogs?  They spontaneously combusted.  That line made me laugh out loud, and the subject matter--people dying of nuclear waste poisoning--not so funny.

But mostly I like this poem for how it addresses really hard political topics like the class differences in the United States and the fall out from nuclear waste and I still want to read it for the imagery and tone.


I am fascinated by the change of person in the poem.  It's all third person--she did this, she did that--until the comment about the dogs:

We suspected them to be prototypes,
becomes of the spontaneous combustion.

I don’t know if it's the angry townspeople who are now speaking, the mob assembling, or the daughter speaking out, trying to understand her own life.  I'm leaning toward the former because of the last line: Any day now. We're watching.

I like how the "we" suddenly draws the reader in closer, ratcheting up the tension.

  Buy her book at May Apple Press