Thus I am inwardly my police
A review of Daniel Poppick's 'The Police'
“Speech is the fourth wall made permanent,” Daniel Poppick writes in the title poem of his debut collection, The Police. Speech is a performance, he suggests: a performance that cuts us off from others, making them, first, an audience, and then constructing a barrier between speaker and audience. More opportunities for communication mean more opportunities to solidify the fourth wall. “Thus I am inwardly my police,” Poppick writes in the poem “Diary” (59). Given the profusion of language, of communication itself, in our current digital environment, how do the ways we use language in the digital age affect our ability to connect with each other meaningfully? What if, instead of breaching the gaps of long-distance communication, technology has instead succeeded in further closing us off from each other by providing new ways for us to distance ourselves in our personal interactions?
Throughout the book, Poppick interrogates how people can remain connected in a world that increasingly relies on screens for communication instead of face-to-face interaction. He also questions the role of the police in our society — not only law enforcement officials but the way we are conditioned to police ourselves and others. While these may seem like disparate ideas, Poppick points to how the desire to be constantly connected is inextricably linked to the way we police. With the rise of more communication technology comes the rise of new languages. Instead of finding optimism in this kind of advancement, Poppick examines the futility of language to ameliorate society’s problems and how it instead can serve to reinforce boundaries between people.
The book is split into five sections, with one outlying poem as prologue and one as epilogue. Poppick relies on enjambment and parataxis to juxtapose seemingly unrelated thoughts. The opening poem, “Pink Stones,” begins with a description of a “vacant stranger” the speaker encounters on his way to work:
His head’s port (you couldn’t call it
A face with precision) grimaced and his gait
Rose wool, which also happened to be what
He had noosed on the pile you’d call his dome
You look at him and his body just sprays
And storms each witness
As I trust when told others are an act of violence against me
How does one approach a person, do you go like “Hi” (15)
In these stream-of-consciousness turns, Poppick effectively sets up his critique of daily interactions. The poem continues along a New York School–inspired thread, meditating on encounters throughout the day, naming each person, until the eighth stanza when we reach a “you”: “I wanted to tell you all about this / so I opened my phone” (18). At this point the poem slows down to reflect on the realities of connecting through screens: “I flow to my twinship, locked both in a cell and on / its other side by people speaking / You turn to one of me and leak onstage / How rare to truly change” (20). The word “cell” does double work as phone and prison: language and communication can be a cage, Poppick implies. If it’s rare for people to truly change, as Poppick writes, what is it that prevents them? And how does technology both contribute to and inhibit any meaningful change?
Poppick deftly raises these questions throughout his work but refuses an answer. He increasingly links policing and social connections throughout the book and dwells on the ways that we inevitably police ourselves and each other. In “Papyrus Fail,” for instance, a long poem in tercets at the beginning of the third section, Poppick draws the connection between policing and communication directly while exploring sound, paper, and digital communication. “The police are increasingly after my friends, but / what about the nouns departing?” he asks and then, “So many calls / I keep forgetting to insert letters (in the traditional sense of the word)” (67, 69). Toward the end of the poem, he moves to confront language (or lack of it) directly:
to share something at you, and it’s what
You do with them: people get Europe pulled
Out of their fingernails, enter a diamond,
And what do we find? I find Elizabeth
And she is saying. They
Find a centipede eating a reader. You find an opinion
Pulsing with silence where light throws hate at a rainbow
But the question remains
Did it heal you with sound?
Because solitude is green and unavailing
And speech is a station through which round weeds blow.
Even I am approaching your throat. (71)
The book’s ultimate question is less to do with how we can improve daily interactions and more to do with whether or not language can do anything to bridge the gaps that our own policing increasingly widens. While he doesn’t attempt to answer this definitively, Poppick nevertheless points to the many ways in which language fails us.
Poppick consistently draws on the New York School’s tradition of capturing experience in time, but also Language writing’s emphasis on parataxis to emphasize the instability of language. The result is sometimes like reading a highly poetic Twitter feed that asks the reader to return and reread. Though working clearly from an avant-garde tradition, Poppick also puts traditional forms to use, with pantoums and sonnets intermixed with free verse that relies on short enjambments. Poppick’s language and syntax are playful, and the variety of forms serves to highlight that playfulness as well as emphasize the instability of language in any form. By switching between formal poetry, free verse, and prose poetry, Poppick destabilizes the presentation of his language, thereby giving multiple contexts to his observations and overriding any authority that his poems may attempt to convey. This resistance to a dominant form serves to complicate the role of the rules that Poppick associates with policing in this book. By establishing these rules only to change them, Poppick underscores the way policing can be a social construct.
In the titular poem, Poppick further thinks through the limitations of language and what it can and cannot convey. The poem moves into an account of a dream inspired by Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price and examines how recounting a memory already obscures it:
Do you see how already in my account those unremembered features
(of the movie, not dream) are flattening to a billboard
Magnetizing your gaze up from some interstate’s white lines
Toward a romping airbrushed puppy & beaming
Child, so that if you are to trust me to not bleed you of your
Today I have to be equally against whatever I’m selling & the light
By pointing out the flaws inherent in recounting past incidents, Poppick points to how we police even our memories and how that contributes to the way we police our own minds: “thus I am inwardly my police” (59). Split into six sections with an epitaph from The Tempest, the poem again raises the question of what it means to be constantly digitally connected yet apart in space: “It is not impossible to fit & channel love / through a glowing two-dimensional / plastic screen but it sucks” (110). Midway through the poem, the speaker meditates on an experience in 2011 in which a police officer pulled him over for speeding. As the officer runs a background check, he asks the speaker of the poem what kind of poetry he writes. “I told him that was the hardest & worst / Question he could ask, & at that he laughed.” (113)
The book, in a certain way, has been building up to this moment: after many nods and references to the police and policing, now there is a confrontation with an officer and the fear that that elicits. In 2019, it’s impossible not to read this anecdote in the context of nationwide protests of police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Poppick, by laying out the narrative without any attempt to justify or analyze it, conveys the glaring discrepancy in treatment that white privilege affords. However, the fact that Poppick doesn’t explore how police violence does manifest only further underscores the privilege afforded to the speaker of the poems. After the encounter with the police, the poem returns to a meditation on memory and distance and language: “Another dream. / Six horses write on a wall, their pencils repeatedly / Clattering to the floor” (114). By moving from the conversation to a dreamscape, Poppick implies that the police encounter was more dream than reality.
That we are all the police — of social situations or otherwise — is chilling, especially considering how microaggressions can escalate. While Poppick explores the way that social rules can function as policing, he doesn’t examine the realities of police violence, leaving the reader to wonder at the omission. Even though Poppick points to the futility of language to assuage the problems of policing in society, he leaves out what this means on a larger scale.
Policing, in this collection, implicates everyone. Poppick’s accumulation of details makes social connections and policing of these connections so inextricable from each other that the ultimate question of the project seems to become whether or not they can ever be separated — and if they can’t, what does that mean for language? If our daily interactions are performances that allow us to uphold a fourth wall in our interactions, then how do we go about dismantling it?
1. Daniel Poppick, The Police, (Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017), 106.
1. Daniel Poppick, The Police, (Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017), 106.