Jazzercise is a Language by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
The Operating System, 2018; 122 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts


In his second full-length collection, Jazzercise is a Language, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague defines the 80’s exercise craze, Jazzercise, as “a complex of borrowed cultural/sites pulled together into the infrastructure of/physical literacy.” Throughout the collection, Ojeda-Sague’s speaker functions much like Jazzercise’s lead instructor and performer, Judi Sheppard Misset, guiding and coaching the reader through a strange and appropriative cultural amalgam of both linguistic and corporeal exercises and displays of fetishized perfection. From the very beginning, it’s as though we are watching the performance along with the speaker, looking at a “Landscape of white women” bending and flexing, doing so effortlessly and without so much as breaking a sweat. The poems begin taking shape as being both deeply confessional and giving glimpses of how this stylized Jazzercise-brand of cis female whiteness influences the speaker’s identity while also serving as commentary on how mainstream Anglo culture seizes and synthesizes non-white culture:

In all the old Jazzercize tapes it’s the same way:
all white women except for one brown-skinned
woman: she’s always to the back and to the right:
the finest moments are when she suddently stops
smiling, the one they notably named Maria, who
stands out against a white background: at one
point the white lead says again “let’s do that
samba and there’s an instant, however small,
where Maria goes off-beat: I feel most white
when I smile at white people

Yes, Jazzercize is the intersection of these appropriated cultural sites that are repurposed and redistributed with the gloss of whiteness. The speaker goes on to observe that, “some videos don’t even try/to include a single person of color: do we not exercise: wear leotards: wear headbands: do/we not shimmy and chasse: body talk and body burn.” Theft and co-opting of dances and moves, and then erasure of non-white participants from the videos. Jazzercize represents heteronormative whiteness itself as it has come manifest and permeate American culture from standards of beauty and attractiveness (the speaker claims if his body gets thin enough, he’d look like a young John Travolta) to the ways in which the English language itself is altered and performed. The poet goes on to assert that Jazzercize “is new materialism” and “the same smell for which the Trojan War was fought.” Jazzercize is the literal embodiment of Westernized greed, lust, capitalism, and a near-unattainable and unrealistic idealized standard of physical attractiveness.

The poems in the collection shift a bit in terms of format and structure, and many consist of two concurrent poems, one column more narrative and confessional, and the other a sort of recipe or spell:

Pour lotion or
cocoa butter
into a bathtub
sleep inside
and once
you wake up
and they are soft enough
cut off your skin tags
with nail clippers
this will help us
speed your
incredible growth

Ultimately, Ojeda-Sague’s collection is about identity and yearning to emulate the toxic and unnatural standards of an oppressive institution, albeit one we are lulled into believing has a place for us. The poet writes, “if/only all our bodies were perfect squares, pixels/in the burn.” Yet it feels we are forever caught in the burn, performing the labor and sacrificing parts of ourselves in order to be deemed good enough or attractive enough by an ideology that only seeks uniformity under a bland and unforgiving aesthetic. This is truly an impressive and innovative collection, and the manner in which the poet takes a seemingly harmless, almost goofy franchise like Jazzercize and uses it to interrogate and subvert whiteness and identity politics is nothing short of genius.