Poem of the Month: “Field Trip to the Museum of Human History” by Franny Choi

Dry-mouthed, we came upon a contraption
of chain and bolt, an ancient torture instrument
the guide called “handcuffs.”

I’ve been doing weekly write-ups of certain poems on Button Poetry’s channel, but I also wanted to highlight some older poems that are personal favorites of mine, which I’ll be doing once per month here. It’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to highlight some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers.

No video this month, but the audio of this poem is posted above, and you can find the full text here. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem recently– partly because of the cool things that MPD150 has been up to here in Minneapolis. For those who don’t know, MPD150 is a project that a group of local activists and artists launched in 2017, the 150th anniversary of the Minneapolis Police Department. Through research and interviews, the group put together a history of the MPD, plus a look at the present (focusing on how police intersect with other elements of the city), plus a few thoughts on what the future might look like.

Specifically, we’re talking about a future without the police.

That might sound radical or utopian (or dystopian, depending on your politics), but a big part of MPD150’s work has been to strive to shift the narrative around policing. Do police truly “protect and serve?” If they do, do they do it for everyone? Do police make us safe? What other ways exist for us to solve our problems without police?

Some of that work comes through the report itself, some through writing like this “Frequently Asked Questions” feature, and quite a bit through art. Some locals may know Junauda Petrus’ poem “Can We Please Give The Police Department To The Grandmothers?,” which was featured at the report launch. Others may have attended our sold-out show at Moon Palace Books last month featuring a few poets (including me) sharing work around police abolition. This fall, MPD150 will be launching an art exhibit based on the report (more on that soon).

I won’t get into ALL of the ins and outs of that work here, but the basic idea is that if we truly want healthy and safe communities, we don’t need more cops– we need more jobs, more youth programs, more art, more access to health care, better schools, and a whole range of things that actually prevent crime rather than just punish it. It’s easy to forget that police, as an institution, have not always existed. They’re not some absolutely fundamental force within human society. Part of the work of abolition is to imagine– to envision a better way of handling our problems and issues.

This poem takes that premise– that we need to be able to visualize the future we want in order to work toward it– and brings it to life via a slice-of-life exploration of a trip to a museum. That act of de-contextualizing something so many of us take for granted (in this case, police) is such a powerful poetic tactic– it allows us to see not just how brutal the status quo is, but how bizarre it is too. I hear this poem’s analysis of nightsticks, handcuffs, and fingerprinting, and immediately recall one of my favorite passages from the MPD150 report’s “Future” section:

Imagine that you were asked to help create stability in a newly-founded city. How would you try to solve the problems that your friends and neighbors encountered? How would you respond to crisis and violence? Would your *first* choice be an unaccountable army with a history of oppression and violence patrolling your neighborhood around the clock?

This poem brings that question to its logical conclusion: no, there are better ways for us to look out for one another. There are more important things to fund. There are pathways forward to preventing violence and harm and not just punishing it after the fact, destroying lives in the process. We just need to be able to imagine it first.

Further Reading:

  • Find more from Franny Choi (including more poems) here.
  • Book Franny Choi at your college/conference/etc. here.
  • Full list of my poem commentary/analysis essays.
  • Related: My latest poem/video, “Police Make the Best Poets.”
  • Check out MPD150 here, especially their big page of resources and further reading.