Images for Radical Politics by Vanessa Jimenez Gabb
Rescue Press, 2016; 116 pp.
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
“After you read something, it either stays with you or it doesn’t,” writes Vanessa Jimenez Gabb in her stunning, thought-provoking, ideology-dismantling debut collection, Images for Radical Politics. These poems are definitely the kind that stick with the reader—intense, eloquent, and haunting. Gabb’s poems focus on the often messy, entangling, insidious, and sometimes sickening relationship one has with the looming and inescapable “ism” that drives our daily lives—Capitalism. The first poem in the collection, “Economic Update,” begins with and is peppered with a sort of financial news ticker in-between the occurrences of the speaker’s day. Despite all the horrifying and unfair policies being carried out worldwide, the speaker admits, “It felt good to say let’ buy something to eat and eat it in the park.” Capitalism is disgusting an alienating—yet we can’t break from it. We need it to feel whole and satisfied. We need to feel we are good consumers doing our part. Perhaps an even more treacherous depiction of capitalism is outlined in “Flatlands.” Gabb writes:
the conditions are always there
waiting for you to realize them
they are a serpent in the still of the night
coming way before it sinks its teeth
into your skin
Gabb’s poetry also tackles the subtler problematic aspects of Capitalism—especially patriarchal conditioning and sexism as it relates to the division of female vs. male labor, the cult of female beauty, fashion and the presentation and maintenance of the sexualized female bodies. Poems such as “LBD” and “At the Gym” are examples of responses to materialism and impositions of beauty standards unfairly heaped upon women’s backs. In “LBD” Gabb writes, “Everything is political/A little black dress/A woman/saying no/Is a political act.” There is defiance in fashion. There is resistance in fashion. A woman must find a way to buck these societal expectations in her favor even if only through her wardrobe choices. The speaker in “At the Gym” shows up to work out with oily hair, with her stomach poking through her exercise clothes. Yet this, too is a political act. This, too is the struggle to exist within rigid and conflicting standards of beauty.
The alienating process of laboring is another theme in Gabb’s collection. In the poem “Raise,” Gabb pinpoints the struggle one faces in determining how their “worth,” is measured monetarily. “I have to spend more time than I have, thinking about asking/for more… All year, I am a thing./All year, I am salt,” she writes. However, the most interesting portion of Gabb’s collection are perhaps the “logs” of various persona’s professions. These are daily schedules and calendars for professions ranging from construction workers to social workers to editors and fashion industry positions. In the long, detailed log for “Christine,” the speaker works for a “terrible editorial outlet” and admits “the entirety of my job is about 1-3pm of real work a day” while spending most of her time on Facebook, talking about online dating, and pretending to work. What is “real” work, however? That’s definitely something Gabb shines a light on with these logs. Some of these characters are paid handsomely, while others earn low, hourly wages. The log for “Ashleigh,” a teacher and tutor for young children, ends with her rattling off a list of all the various domestic and other unpaid work she must do in addition to her paid jobs and taking care of her own child—cooking, paying bills, and maybe having time to spare for writing poetry or book reviews—“all the work that makes a life.” Vanessa Gabb’s book necessitates taking a long, uncomfortable look at the way we spend our days, our money, and our lives. As she writes of each precious day we have and how we pass it, “Twenty-four hours is not enough so you gallop on a powerful/horse for more hours than there are, toward the enemy.” These poems are powerful commentary on the Capitalist lies and fairy tales we are fed and provide us even the most subtle ways to undermine and dismantle a system that has us all in its deathgrip.