Jill McDonough’s book of poetry Reaper is written at a desperate time for humanity. We currently face the very real threats of overpopulation, pollution and global warming, all of which stir up questions of control and technology. McDonough brings awareness to these issues while at the same time providing hope for the future.
McDonough predicts that the loss of our humanity, of nature, and the loss of human nature – the loss of the self – will all be, in part, due to the rise of technology. We, as a species, are becoming numb to our own desires, “wanting … wanting” (10). People are currently content to be “distracted” (16), brainwashed, in a sense, numb to life. We take for granted the little things, things that don’t require technology, like emotions, feelings, or experiences; the more we allow technology to rule our loves, the more we lose sight of our true selves.
An overarching sense of “fear” (9) seems to govern McDonough’s poetry collection: a fear of consumerism; fear of over-consumption; a fear of technology overtaking humans; a fear of the “future” (18) governed/ruled by technology.
McDonough understands that we “cant govern crap” (4), referring to the fact that technology functions on its own, recognizing that awareness to these issues is whats required in order to understand and reverse the dangerous effects of technological control. McDonough heavily opposes this idea of a “man-made future” (3), categorizing technology as “baggage, lugged as grocery[s]” (7).
If you’re looking for political poetry, stop right here. Jill McDonough’s Reaper zooms in on America’s expanding drone program and the ever-blurring line of man and machine. McDonough examines the distancing of culpability and repercussions when there’s a computer screen and a continent between you and the dead. This is not a happy book; it’s a book to make you think, to shine a light on the darker side of American politics, and the warfare we often pretend isn’t happening. She swaps out flowery imagery for repetition of sparse, to-the point poetry that hammers home her message. McDonough’s writing is gritty and unapologetic, refusing to let even the reader off the hook. It never feels like an attack, though. Instead, McDonough is simply insisting that we look at the whole picture, not just the pretty, easy parts.
The table of contents can be read as one long foreboding poem in itself, foreshadowing the themes of technology, death, war, and loss that are to come. At the same time McDonough’s poetry aggravates feelings of nostalgia, reminescent of “back in the day” (14). The “old fashioned” (22) and “forgotton” memories become an anti-theme, juxtaposing our current state of technological control by highlighting memories of the way it once was.
Using modern cultural references such as “iPhone, facebook” (3), “YouTube” (8), and “Twitter” (10), McDonough captures the lighthearted side of technology while simultaneously alluding to the darker side of technology, such as the use of robots as weapons. She knows that “Software Perception, Control Systems” (3) that promote a “follow the leader” (3) lifestyle are dangerous, and wants readers to know it, too. We must not allow ourselves to be led, if we lose our sense of individuality, or ability to think for ourselves, we will lose the future.
“lost our agency .. because of daily technology. We’re so distracted by the decadence available to us—or, for more of us, the fifteen jobs we have to work, the struggles with our insurance companies, finding a ride to the private prison where our family members are held —that we can’t keep track of all the wars being fought in our names. With our taxes. We’ve lost our agency because so many people in power benefit from our ignorance.”
McDonough’s criticism of technology functions as a warning: we will “reap what we sow” (5). McDonough wants us to know of the harsh realities and severe consequences we will face if we allow the irreversible damage of technology to take control over our lives. She knows that once we fully submit to computers, we “cant make them go away” (23).
We are allowing this to happen. It is our own fault. We have become so “distracted by shine” (4) that we do not want to admit that the shine is, in fact, our problem. Technology is not the solution; we are the solution. We, as a species, should ulitize technology without allowing it to take charge of us, to control us, brainwash us, numb us, desensitize us, or distract us. We must act.
Jill McDonough’s books of poems include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and Reaper (Alice James, 2017). The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, NEA, NYPL, FAWC, and Stanford, her work appears in Slate, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fifth poetry collection, Here All Night, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.