A New Kind of Trans Poetics

A New Kind of Trans Poetics

In A Queen in Bucks County, Kay Gabriel finds a connection between trans femininity and modernism as she documents one person’s winding journey from suburb to city.


Turner’s life revolves around six things: “men, poems, rent, work, disgust, and transit.” Turner writes letters to friends in the interstitial times of commuting or after hook-ups; the reader intercepts them in between Turner’s work and leisure. Turner dilates on all of those themes, which might circumscribe the world of the contemporary educated, urban, queer, millennial misfit. Turner, whose name sounds “fake, like porn-fake,” is our queen of Bucks County.

Who is he? Or who is she? And if Turner is “she,” is that “she” in the gay male sense? A turner of tricks, maybe, in more than one register. A turner of cheeks, maybe—ass cheeks, that is. Among other things, Turner is a heteronym of the poet Kay Gabriel. (I’m thinking heteronym like one of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s, maybe the one who wrote his Book of Disquiet, also a fragmentary fiction of city life.) Turner is not a pseudonym, a false mask of a “true” self. It’s the self that writes itself into existence, as all selves do, in this case, through the writing of A Queen in Bucks County. Like Jackie Ess in her novel Darryl, Gabriel is a transsexual woman writer as ventriloquist of male selfhood. Trans women know a lot about how to play the man—I did it as a bit for decades. We know a lot about gender as a gag, as ruse, an act, a language. Gabriel is among those freeing trans writing from the trap of identity. In this case, opening up space to play in the “the coy interval between gays and trans women.” And it has to be said that as a language for sex, the language of gay male sex is milk-and-honey rich. Or as Turner puts it: “I’m trying to throw my body at you, on a gurney of verbs.”

Trans femininity has a surprisingly resonant role in modernism. We’re the avatar of Gomorrah, the city as liquidator of distinction, overripe to fall. We’re in Joyce and Barnes and Pasolini, in Duchamp and Warhol. Sometimes it’s more interesting than that: Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses—those give a less ambivalent, more affirmative cast to trans femininity because their makers want the city to fall. But still, it’s a bind—one that Turner sidesteps.

Turner comes with a host of epithets for his epic journeys across the waters from the suburbs to New York. Turner is a “bossy bottom,” a “person in a bag,” a “cheat, a villain and a leady lady,” a “delicate temptress,” both a “mercenary of the ’burbs” and a “shudder of the ’burbs.” The two dominant moods are horny and disgusted. Never disgusted about sex, but always with work, rent, and living inside the totality of a commodified world.

Turner is a vector across the lines of class, the other side of what is supposed to be secured by marriages and mortgages: “men stare and run back to their wives.” Turner is not really a threat to anyone; rather “slight and accommodating,” and yet “Men buy me things,” Turner says. The commodity always comes with the “smack of the feminized.” There’s a strain of misogyny, which sees femininity as somehow more complicit with the market than any other kind of gender. (There are strains of feminism, weirdly, that come to the same conclusion.) As if masculinity buying what femininity is selling was the end of the story. Turner interrupts this circuit, “in my little pink tee, my little pink shorts, my little pink boots, my enormous appetite.” Gabriel offers us a glimpse into an economy of desire that’s more textured, more complicated than what a gift says about the receiver and the giver.

But then there’s rent to pay, and work to do to pay it, which is all a bit of a turn-off. Gabriel is the heiress of all those who, since Rimbaud, sought the good life, and the urge to revolution, not (or not only) in resistance to wage labor but in whatever time can be stolen from it. And so, “the leisure you need to have sex, well, the leisure you need to write. It’s leisure and everyone should have it; when everybody does, it won’t be leisure anymore.” But then, “is it leisure if I mind it?” There’s an art to free time, and an art to finding languages for it.

If “proletarians” are those who have nothing but their own offspring, then who are queers and transsexuals who don’t even have that? As Turner says, “all I’ve got is this body to ruin.” Which Turner proceeds to do, gloriously, and then write about it: “Of course, I’m a pornographer, I believe in the torment of desire.” Gabriel mimics the commonplace language of porn for extra-erotic potentials: “I want to earfuck the device.” There’s a frisson of fucking and femme clichés of display and domesticity. “His orgasm rips out of him, an acrylic nail caught off a finger and torn.”

Attempts to elevate sex with highfalutin language inevitably fall into banality, but by doubling down on banality, Gabriel makes sex both visceral and delightful—a tongue is compared to a Swiffer, an orgasm to a drain unplugged. Not a commonplace but a commons of flesh and its urges. “Everybody gets to be sexy like everybody gets to die.” There’s a contradiction, and Gabriel doesn’t shy from it: “a white queer in Flatbush is a walking icon of rent going up.” A counter-economy of desire feeds the commodity economies of fashion and real estate. Queer desire alone is not enough.

In a delightful phrase, the book parses its own aesthetic as “dicking around in the afterimage of modernism.” You could read Bucks County through its poetry, but I choose to read it as prose. Some of its influences I know well: Marx meets Rimbaud, Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz. Some seem there in the shadows: Baudelaire and Benjamin; some are maybe yet to meet up at the afterparty, such as the Situationists and their great slogan “Another city for another life.” It’s a question of what to do with radical wanderers like Turner in the era of gentrification.

The Turner heteronym, busy getting busy, makes a fine vehicle for ugly feelings. It’s a particularly pressing contemporary cultural problem: what to do about resentment. Turner “used to stack the crud of this world in grids and lists.” But “now I put it in sentences, and interrupt them with a knife.” Many of the conventional avenues of recuperation of intellectual energy are blocked. There’s a brilliant generation who know it and whose art refuses to hanker after or mourn what it has been refused. Turner: “My imaginative lusts riddle bullet holes in the side of the achievable.”

That there may not be much future at all is no reason to give it up. One can instead stake everything on “future” as what is always-already here, in the negative. Another city for another life. “In the future we’ll shed our rent like onion skins. I want to blow the roof off the world as much as anybody, with half the spite. I also want to get fucked. What do these have to do with each other. This is my nasty, gentle gift.” Men buy Turner things, but Gabriel is giving.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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