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'Still Death': a Hard-Hitting Poem About Predator Drones (Audio)

(AP / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Jill McDonough’s poem drives home the idea that when it comes to the many lives taken by predator drones, “On the screen or on the ground, death observed is still death.” Listen to the poet read “Still Death” and read along, below.

Jill McDonough reads “Still Death”

Still Death

Jill McDonough

“An unfortunate byproduct of this kind of war.â€
–Lt. Col. Matt J. Martin, Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story

On the screen or on the ground, death observed is still death.
Sparkle a target, fire a Special K, hope nobody moves. Then it hits
a bicycle. One boy pedaling, one on the handlebars—broken, bent—

it wasn’t there 23 seconds ago. It was insurgents,
a whole truckload. We double checked, declared a clear target.
On the screen or up close and dusty, death observed is still death.

Every bomb’s a strategic failure, even if it’s a tactical success
I heard an F-16 commander say once: that fits with this,
two little bodies on the screen. Flung from their bicycle, broken and bent.

We saw bad guys burying mortar tubes, fired, held our breath
till a bright flash washed out the screen: direct hit.
Bad guys are easier to watch die. But death is still death,

and we’re the ones killing. It’s not just death observed I meant:
I started calling the Predator “Iâ€â€”I hover, I watch—two weeks in:
So I knocked two boys from a bike, saw it broken and bent.

Or, sure, bad guys, probably just locals looking to make rent,
get paid to pop off a round. Do they count as jihadists?
On the screen or on the ground, a death observed is still death.
I work on forgetting the bicycle, two boys. Broken and bent.

Jill McDonough’s books of poems include “Habeas Corpus” (Salt, 2008) and “Where You Live” (Salt, 2012). The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, National Education Association, New York Public Library, Fine Arts Work Center and Stanford University, her work appears in Slate, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. She directs the Master of Fine Arts program at University of Massachusetts Boston and 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fourth poetry collection, “REAPER,” is forthcoming from Alice James Books.

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