Reaper by Jill McDonough – Reading Women 2019

This post is part of a series on reading women 2019 hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s Narrative Designer, Dan Michael Fielding.

Reaper by Jill McDonough opens with a poem about robots in the park. Although many science fiction stories have started with a similar premise, McDonough’s poem is based on real events. Humans really are bringing robots to parks and having them stumble around, fall to the ground, learn from their mistakes, and rise once more. Those robots are built by Boston Dynamics, and inspired the first poem in McDonough’s collection.

An organic dog looks at a robotic dog. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)

It’s a hopeful poem steeped in wonder, and as I said on my announcement post for this prompt it immediately drew me in.

Her collection goes on to explore in great depth the problem of drone technology in war and commercial use. A far less hopeful topic.

In her poems drones kill, they hunt, they spy. They are the surveillance eye manned by soldiers thousands of miles away. They are adorned with names like Predator, Reaper, Shadow, DarkStar. The names of war drones fade seamlessly into the names used for commercial drones.

Reaper by Jill McDonough. The cover depicts a cloudy gray sky with a single drone flying overhead.

McDonough seems to grow more exhausted as the collection continues. At times she berates herself for feeling this way, for harboring such anger towards drone technology, such as in a poem addressed to her sister who attempted to buy their father a drone.

But McDonough’s poetry isn’t a one-note polemic against violence (although it would have every right to be). Her poetry allows you to feel the wonder and the excitement at the potential of new technology. It is that wonder that makes each subsequent poem about death and dying hit harder. You get the sense that we could do great things with technology if not for our own recurring mistakes.

To me, the best poems in this collection are a set of three that are clustered together towards the end. The three poems focus on the ways that military drone operators refer to their drones as “I.”

An excerpt from “Calling Predator ‘I'”:

I could continue to circle and stare and wait

all night, all day; all my shift, anyway.
I’d forget where I really was, how, which chunk of time.
I already called Predator I; thousands of miles away

I paid more attention than I could at home, my day
off. If anybody asked how I was, I’d just say fine.
But in my mind I’d still be circling, staring, waiting,
calling Predator I, thousands of miles away

The idea of embodying–of literally becoming–the drone was shocking to me. Those who advocate the use of drone technology because they see it as less costly to human life don’t see the ways that drone operators must feel, sense, and see through the drone. They embody a machine whose only use is to kill.

This, and many of the other poems in her collection, are responses to real life events. In this case she is responding to an autobiography from a drone operator. In many cases her poetry is introduced with a quote from a book or from a political figure in a way that feels like citing a scholarly work to construct an argument. It’s done well, and makes her poetry feel more present and real.

I’m no fine connoisseur of poetry, but I loved McDonough’s approachable style. She writes most often in full sentences which are arranged in such a way as to be startling to read. There were times I felt confused only to realize that was precisely her intention.

Drones, and the harm they bring, is a necessary topic for discussion, and one that far too often is ignored in favor of starry-eyed idealism about our current technological boom. I found her poetry refreshing and honest, if sometimes difficult to read due to the subject matter.

Overall I’d recommend her collection of poetry, especially to anyone who is interested in technology and war, or who wants to understand the world just a bit better.

What did you read for the poetry and short story prompt? Let me know so I can add more things to my ever-growing to-read list!

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