Jules Gibbs’s “Women’s Dept.” first appearing in Bear Review 5.1, sonically and visually overwhelms the reader. Through agile sound-play and momentum-building repetition, the poem offers a critique of social and economic structures that oppress women worldwide. Although Gibbs uses the plural form of “women,” she is careful not to generalize or overlook the realities of inequality and injustice that directly impact some women more than others. The poem’s imagery makes clear distinctions between the burdens faced by women toting armfuls of clothes to dressing rooms and the physical harm and indignities faced by “women mining polyester in chilly vuggs” or “thirsty women without land or water.” The poem’s themes--gender expectations, body image, exploitative labor practices, overconsumption, pollution, colonization, among others--unfold in each dense line of text.
Visually, the prose-block form conjures up several images: racks full of clothes, lines of workers crowded together in factories, large bundles of textile waste, the mechanized weave--the warp and weft of fabric--just to name a few. There’s a tension between Gibbs’s use of standardized punctuation and nonstandard use of capitalization except for the capitalization of Bangladesh, the poem’s only proper noun. This emphasis on Bangladesh, the site of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that left 1,132 garment factory workers dead, provides context for Gibbs’s critique of the fashion industry that harms--kills--women. The poem’s deliberate lack of capitalization, contrasted with adherence to the rules of syntax, underscores the subordination and oppression of women within social and economic power structures: “women charged up in electrostatic muchness, charging it to charge cards. women in charge of nothing, charged with the soft crime of being women.” The fact that women have more debt than men and are disproportionately less likely to be hired for positions of leadership--with higher salaries--is just another example that the poem provides of how women are disadvantaged.
By the time the reader makes it to the conclusion, they may have forgotten, like I did, the poem’s title: “Women’s Dept.” At first glance, the title may seem relatively benign as it suggests the generic, no-placeness of a department store. This generalized use of ”women’s department” could refer to Nordstroms or Target as both high-end and fast-fashion retailers selling clothing created by exploitative and pollutive means of production. In an age of online retail, the physical experience of shopping for clothes in a store may seem like something that is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. But Gibbs’s poem reminds us that the power structures that created the women’s department persist.
Jules Gibbs is the author of the full-length poetry collections Snakes & Babies (2021) and Bliss Crisis (2012), both published by The Sheep Meadow Press, as well as a chapbook from Dancing Girl Press, The Bulk of the Mailable Universe (2011.) Her writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Antioch Review, Ambit Magazine, Plume Poetry, American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Salt Hill Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Verse Daily, among others.