'An escape from daily pronouns'

S. Brook Corfman’s journal poems and the domestic life of queer gender

Sliver from a pallasite meteorite from Fukang (Xinjiang, China). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If the self in everyday life is like a jar without a lid, exposed and vulnerable to impacts, tipping over and spilling out, then S. Brook Corfman’s 2020 book My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites, a record of the self in everyday life, endeavors to hold that vessel carefully and watch it overflow: “I traced myself in peppermint oil, for protection. During the storm, each room filled with water, a jar always brimming. An escape from daily pronouns. Outside a fan still swung, slow whooms, whoom, and then it stopped.”[1] What kind of self is present here? “An escape from daily pronouns” is an escape from being a subject, a participant in discourse, about whom other people speak. The phrase suggests a day without the routine social interactions that require the use of pronouns, and that often, for queer and trans people, entail misgendering. “Daily pronouns” sounds a lot like daily bread or daily value — something required in order to live, to have identity, presence, and health. The “brimming” jar, before the escape, suggests a state of being too much, a self in excess of its container. The jar’s interior overflows. Yet the brimming self is bounded: “I traced myself in peppermint oil.” 

Corfman’s overflowing self that nonetheless requires an outline or a boundary — for protection — is both ordinary and queer.[2] Corfman’s poem configures a queer self that is traceable and excessive, overflowing and coherent. Queer lives today embody this paradox. In the context of an expanded yet uncertain set of rights for LGBTQ people, tracing the queer self — giving it form — can be an act of self-preservation in response to normalization and the pressure to be a person, to submit to “daily pronouns” and the harms of being perceived (and misperceived) by other people, institutions, and the state. Contradictory desires for protection and unboundedness converge in My Daily Actions and define what I am calling “the domestic life of queer gender.” Everyday life inside the home affords a temporary break from bearing an always-public gender, one affirmed (or not) by others. In these intervals, the feeling of having a gender, overflowing, does not lead to gender “theory.” Rather, it leads to something closer in scale to minor, everyday knowledge: how to make tea or register a sensation. Daily action yields a knowledge that cannot be accessed elsewhere. 

Judith Butler’s theory of gender tells us that routine acts and gestures, from putting on clothes to turning one’s head, give rise to gender as the apparent effect of an essence or an interior: “if gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured.” The act of doing — not merely expressing — gender “constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority.”[3] Corfman’s poems are attentive to the ways this fictional inside can persist and be rewritten in ordinary, domestic life. We know that gender doesn’t exist “inside” the body as an essence that finds its true or proper expression in the wearing of certain garments or the performing of certain gestures. Nevertheless, sometimes it feels that way, and feeling that way can be a vital resource toward survival. Meteorites, like daily actions, are the evidence of survival. They are survival in object form. If a “meteor” survives the journey to Earth and reaches the surface, then it is called a “meteorite.” The name change indicates survival and the event of impact or contact. The Wikipedia page on meteorites, which Corfman cites in My Daily Actions, claims that most of them “date from the early Solar System and are by far the oldest extant material on Earth.” Daily actions are not new or different or even very exciting. As a result, they have been underrepresented as queer acts or acts important to queer and trans life. The ordinary and the domestic have been overlooked as spaces where queer modes of being might flourish.

Corfman’s poetry bears out recent critical cultural theory’s insight that the ordinary is a domain of perpetual crisis and perpetual adjustment rather than radical transformation. They position a queer experience of the body in everyday life as one entwined with the experience of the planet getting warmer, “the impending ecological disaster, its dread.”[4] This is to say that “home,” for Corfman, isn’t a haven from the world but rather a place to know and register its violence: to have a “vision of disaster.”[5] Home is also where the poet can imagine changing their gender, which one poem refers to obliquely as “an absence that, if filled, would flood” (16). The metaphor of the flood begins to capture what the poet has never found “mirrored” in a book, that is, their experience of queer/trans gender. Throughout the book, queer gender manifests as heat — sometimes too much heat — and as water, overflowing. These by now familiar manifestations of climate change seep into Corfman’s domestic space, the global climate crisis mingling with a personal or private gender “flood” in everyday life.

“It’s true,” Corfman writes, “our living room is extremely warm and has large windows. Once I had a vision and sat upon the table” (14). Corfman’s “vision” is supported by the table, a concrete object of empirical observation, and is prefaced by “true” description. “It’s worth saying, too,” the poem on the facing page continues, “that I am obsessed with the distraction of the meteor I can hold: I am listening to my shoulder blades rub together, a sound of my interior I am pretty sure I can actually hear” (15). The body sounds its own interior, understood to be a fiction, inside this “true” domestic space. Corfman juxtaposes the truth of a warm living room (its verifiable, even measurable details like the window size and temperature) with the foundational uncertainty of selfhood, having a body and a gender, underscoring that there is more truth to be found in someone’s living room than there is in the bodies of those who would observe a living room. The poem continues: “An internet quiz tells me I strive to be both ‘austere’ and ‘exquisitely composed.’ Like that quiz I believe again in astrology because it seems as arbitrary as gender” (15). Gender, these poems know, is contradictory and random, as impersonal as an astrological sign that feels descriptive — not like Corfman’s living room or its warm air that we can “actually” feel and even assign a number to. Yet Corfman raises the question, what if the self were like a living room, the body’s “interior” a thing to hear and know by its own sounds? Why is a hot room more of a true thing than one’s body or one’s interior? The planet’s inescapable warmth reveals the need for and, at the same time, the impossibility of a way to shield the body from harm — the “whooms” and wounds of public appearance, from transphobia to hot air. What is there, finally, but the body? Here is the end of the living room poem: “A spider crawled slowly up a single strand of web in front of my face, and I couldn’t help but wonder: did he come from my hair? What else is there to hang on to?” (14).

My Daily Actions is a diary-like account of queer and trans life — an ordinary life defined as much by gender feelings and acts of violence against trans people as by global climate change: “Today it was hot and then suddenly I wasn’t wearing enough clothing,” Corfman observes, “I want to wear a romper” (23). The book begins with “Premonition,” a poem in lines that announces Corfman’s method of attention: to “wait and watch” (1). The second section, titled “Meteor,” is a series of prose poems, placed one to a page like journal entries. In these poems, queer life is ordinary: boring and full of dread. The ambient worry of the book is not that (some) queer people have lost their claim to being outsiders to normative structures, but that queer politics (and perhaps also queer poetics) has failed to reckon with “the dilemmas of the average people that we also are.”[6] Corfman asks the average person, who might also be queer or trans, “Do you feel unsupported?” (23).

In this book, a traceable self is one supported by everyday acts — or what might seem like “normal” life. In certain ways, queer theory’s critique of “normal” life has not aged well, as more queer people seek to inhabit and break open normative forms like domesticity and the couple.[7] “For many activists and scholars today,” as Heather Love has pointed out, “holding to a position both outside and against ‘the normal’ — against queer family and queer domesticity — risks division not only from ‘mainstream politics’ but also from queer community itself.”[8] It is by now a well-known secret that queer people love a lot of the things queer theory has loved to hate. Queer theory’s history in the academy has been shaped by what Ben Nichols calls a “defining aversion to sameness,” to the notion that queer people are the same as everyone else.[9] This structural allergy to sameness can shed light on why the home and ordinary, domestic life have been such troublesome objects of study for queer theory since its formation. Now, however, more and more scholars are invested in expanding the imaginary for queer life to include, in short, the livable and lived — how queer and trans people actually live now and, in some cases, have long sought to live. A queer poetics of attention to the self in everyday life informs queer theory’s reassessment of the ethical and political space “inside” and athwart the normal. Who desires to be in that space? Desire for normalcy is queer. For much of queer history, this longing has been a sign of social exclusion. Now, queer normalcy is possible, a means of feeling supported, though not necessarily by the state or its program of liberal rights. Corfman’s question, “Do you feel unsupported,” presumes a subject unsupported by everyday structures: institutions, breakfast, the courts, the planet, the marriage plot, the couch. Yet Corfman looks to seemingly insignificant, minor, domestic structures — like the table — for support because, what else is there to hang on to?

The drama of My Daily Actions is the collision of self and world or, put another way, the home and other people. When, in Corfman’s final poem (titled, like the opening poem, “Premonition”), we meet the line “This doesn’t mean anything as a theory of gender,” it reads at once like a challenge to discern a theory of gender within the book’s preceding pages and a claim that theories of gender cannot account for daily actions (67). In an earlier poem, Corfman observes, “I feel eternally pubescent as I associate my gender into being. It turns out, I may be becoming older. Eternal gerund” (17). Gender in public is often the process of being sorted into two groups; that’s one meaning of “associate.” To associate is to connect. Corfman associates their gender into being by making connections, for example between themself and a “burning sphere moving through space” (7). The sphere ignites when it gets “close to another mass.” Does this mean anything as a theory of gender? If bodies were meteors, then all bodies would burn on contact, turn to light. To “feel eternally pubescent” is to resist the sorting procedures of a binary-gendered world. “Eternal gerund” suspends the subject in a calm, unending present, a candle burning without end. Gender as gerund is an activity that settles into noun-ness. Corfman evokes a sense of gender association, if not transition, as an “eternal,” ongoing state, declining endpoints and beginnings in favor of contact, heat, connection, and the middle space of waiting.

The ways in which these poems dwell on things that haven’t been transformed, on moments of stillness and stretches of waiting, might lead us to rethink our idea of what transition is and feels like as an everyday life practice. Corfman notes that they “have not become a lion, a wolf, not even a lizard” (19). They have not, in short, transformed. The gerund’s continuous thrum comes closer to approximating queer gender than the ticking of a sequential plot, a story of transformation. Corfman’s gerund thus runs against the grain of narratives of gender transition that promise a better and more livable future (as an endpoint) in one’s body, if not the warming world outside. Corfman’s poems imagine the home to be a space for self-observation, self-invention, and becoming that is not separate from the world or its ongoing unbecoming due to floods and other disasters. Unsurprisingly, the book is indecisive and ambivalent about the framing of ordinary, domestic life as liberatory. The final poem admits: “I cannot decide if I am larger than my skin” (67). These poems cannot decide if queer/trans gender is larger than the “skin” that other people misinterpret. Is one’s gender, like one’s home, a porous room containing the same warm air that circulates outside of it?

Even though we are inhabiting the ordinary with Corfman, we are also being shown around a dreamscape in which meadows might be houses (or houses might be meadows). The fruit of simply paying attention is a host of strange sensations: “Walking through my apartment I heard someone say ‘en guard!’ like they were in my ear. Perhaps it was a kind of hallucination” (13). Daily actions are familiar, but the method of attention Corfman brings to them is not. Queer forms of noticing give rise to things not “actually” seen or heard, in recognition that queer modes of being puncture what is normative, a shared sense of the commonplace. “The commonplace,” as Lyn Hejinian explains, “is a totality; a place, physical or mental, we (things that exist) hold in common with each together … it is as meaningful as that, as the place where we know each other.”[10] A queer sense of this totality includes unreal objects, things not recognized as real, as well as what we don’t or cannot know about each other — interior sounds. Corfman’s orienting poem, “Premonition,” which opens the book, inverts the two parts of a metaphor, that is, it places the symbolic in the position of the real and thus subverts a common sense:

In the field hands rise like wildflowers.

Each nail painted a different color — teal, sunflower, tangerine, lapis.

From your vessel, dip the paddle to the dirt.

It moves as water, a reversed river.

A single door, ornate, leads only to the rest of the meadow. (1)

Doors and rooms appear throughout My Daily Actions. In “Premonition,” Corfman’s “single door, ornate” could be (or is imagined to be) outside. It could be a threshold that has been misplaced in the middle of a meadow, so that one’s passage through it does not mean arriving anywhere new. The door defies the logic of threshold crossing as moving from A to B, from being here to being elsewhere. It only leads us “to the rest” of where we are or have already been. This ornate door both is and isn’t a metaphor for gender transition, understood not as a crossing but as a becoming the rest of oneself — becoming whatever one already is and wants to be. A field of hands with brightly painted nails suggests a genderqueer landscape (and a queer aesthetic aligned with vibrant colors and adornment), but the image might as easily invert to yield a haunted landscape with dead hands sprouting like flowers (a queer aesthetic of absence and loss). Corfman’s field of wildflower hands is resolutely alive; at the same time, it is haunted.

The poem’s title, “Premonition,” reminds us that something bad is imminent, although not something that is necessarily new or unfamiliar: the door “leads only to the rest of the meadow,” to more of what we have already seen. The second journal poem connects the feeling that something is going to happen to the violence a person might face for choosing to wear a pair of shoes in public: “It is as if to walk out of a house in a pair of heels would make me someone’s hero and also get me killed” (6). The public performance of queer gender is potentially heroic and potentially very dangerous — for some bodies more than others. Walking out of the house and toward a queerer future or just to the bar is a canonical scene of queer defiance, refusal, and desire. It is a scene of someone refusing to abide by the house rules, to hide or minimize their queerness, to be normal and appropriate. Yet in Corfman’s poem the proud “walk out of a house” (any house?) is ambivalent and double-edged. It is as if removes the exit and its dangers from the realm of certainty, raising the question of whether the poet wants to leave the house at all.

Given the sense of premonition that pervades My Daily Actions, the uncertain — perhaps conditional — desire to leave home and confront the warming, wounding, even deadly world outside is hardly surprising. Stillness, though, is not the same as inattention or even inaction, as the rest of “Premonition” makes clear:

When I am alone, I sometimes stand like the women of those worlds which are my
own sacred texts.

I hold a scepter shaped like a key, turn from the Torah toward a magical girl.

A beautiful form appears with a warning: the valley will burn, or the sky will firm as

These are not inevitable, but I react to specific demands.

For example, let time move forward.

Never go through the door.

So, I wait and watch what moves in the meadow.

Each step toward or away from the door becomes impossibly detailed. (1)

The point is not to go through this door but rather to wait and watch what happens — to decline whatever promise of eventual transformation crossing this threshold represents. The tentative step, impossibly detailed, is a metaphor for living in the process of gender transition (or the imminence of transition, the possibility of transition), or for existing in what Andrea Long Chu has called “the waiting rooms of wanting things.”[11] Exacting, even painful attention (“I took to myself with such precise penance,” [6] Corfman writes in the second prose poem) takes the place of unpredictable trajectories, curves, and swerves, which are so often used to signify queer lives and desires as different. The meaning of “queer” itself is “bound up in signs of movement” and fluidity, escape and transformation.[12] At stake in claiming stillness as a mode of queer/transgender being is deprivileging the exit and, relatedly, the crossing, by which so many narratives of coming out and gender transition are made meaningful.

Within these narratives, the essence of queerness, though we might hesitate to ascribe queer being to essence, is movement — and the resulting “open mesh of possibilities” for making or identifying oneself across, in excess of, or athwart (in opposition to) the categories that prescribe a normative self.[13] In the enduring queer imaginary to which Eve Sedgwick’s definition of “queer” as possibility and movement, “inextinguishable” and “eddying,” belongs, queer spaces are vital, affirming gaps in heteronormative epistemologies.[14] They are expansive, open spaces in the sense of making possible configurations of self, identity, community, and desire that would not be possible otherwise. They are defined less by inhabitance — staying put — than by one’s movement through or across or even beyond them. In her influential formulation in Tendencies, published in 1993, Sedgwick defines “queer” not as having a fixed or inextinguishable content but as being an inextinguishable force for countermovement: an “eddy” is a circular movement or small whirlpool that runs counter to the water’s primary current.

Movement — leaving home, or, in the poem quoted above, merely going through the door — is a potentially wounding experience in the queer and trans imaginary of Corfman’s journal poems. Home emerges in these poems as a place to seek relief, protection, and comfort in a period of transition that might not, in the end, result in transformation. Stillness, in turn, emerges in Corfman’s account as a mode of trans becoming or association, connection. The closing poem in Corfman’s first book Luxury, Blue Lace (2019), stages the problem of a desire to be still and, more precisely, to inhabit: the method of My Daily Actions. Corfman’s Luxury, Blue Lace concerns, in the words of poet Dawn Lundy Martin, “unreconciled subjectivity,” a phrase from Martin’s cover blurb. The final poem, an untitled prose poem, invokes a legibly queer desire to be in motion, ever-changing, and, to borrow Sedgwick’s term, “eddying.” Corfman seems to me to be asking in this oblique final poem: is it possible to be both? To be at once settled, protected, at home, as well as a force against the world, a countercurrent, fluid, formless? Transitions between “rooms” can be painful, this poem makes clear. The “rooms” themselves are necessary places (and/or metaphors for spaces) where it is possible to rest, recover, stay, and seek protection:

There are many rooms and you suffer most when you go between them. A tendency even in language to uninhabit. But now, we know there are rooms. We know it is the going from one to the other that takes it out of you. Blue room into blue room. If only facts would move forward — ellipses without elision, only gap. Where the skull meets the neck, feeling gathers as a grounding stone. Soak it in salt water, warm it in your hands. Let it settle your flickering form, rough outline. Return it to that suboccipital space. A center, or one of them. A knowledge. The stone’s river or the river in your spine. Even the ocean is evaporating where it lies exposed.[15]

Perhaps as a metaphor for queer/trans gender itself, Corfman invokes a bounded room instead of an ever-expanding space, yet, as we know from My Daily Actions, household rooms are not impermeable, the world imprints upon their walls. The home is a place to be what you are while also registering the force of an injunction to be otherwise that being in public delivers. This poem associates transition, or moving between rooms, with a loss of something (“it”). Moving between rooms “takes it out of you,” they write. Having learned this, Corfman’s poem dreams (“If only”) of a mode of moving between rooms and in time without “elision” or a loss of something. The poem’s answer to “elision” is a ritual, not unlike the peppermint oil tracing we find in My Daily Actions. Above, the ritual is a saltwater soak to “settle” the body’s vague or “flickering” lines.

The queer/trans body needs protection, or “[a] knowledge” of itself that comes from ritual, daily action, and inhabiting its rooms. If “exposure” is the process by which gender is produced in the encounter with other people and, through them, with gender’s discourse (the address of daily pronouns), then it is also, as the ocean in the poem’s last line suggests, a form of slow, small disappearance. There is a version of yourself, I read this poem to be saying, that falls just short of being actual or real because it’s a version other people might not recognize. The simple act of leaving home, dressed and ready for the day, might spell “elision” for this self, already under a kind of erasure as a fictional inside or essence. In Corfman’s poetry, the queer home holds this version of the self in daily actions, rituals, dreams, and observations in a way that other people, or exposure, rarely if ever can. “Is there ever a moment when we are,” Hil Malatino asks of trans folks, “— transparently, in all our complexity, intuitively, and deeply — known by those others we share space with? Where those others understand our bodyminds in precisely the ways in which we desire them to?”[16] Even the biggest body of water, endlessly flowing and enduring, loses some of itself to exposure. If queer gender is the water in a glass jar, always brimming, then the point of daily actions is to guard against that loss.

Corfman’s poems are alive to gender’s public and social life as recognition (and lack thereof) yet keenly attuned to gender’s private and domestic life as action, doing whatever it is you are without an audience of “those others.” My Daily Actions is a journal of queer gender’s everyday life, the felt experience of an escape from daily pronouns, real and imagined. Daily pronouns sound the terms of gender’s discourse, others’ words. Daily actions unlock sounds of an interior, perhaps: “The tv filters from the other room: are private feelings really public?” (18). A queer poetics of attention to the ordinary world has the potential to revise queer theory’s critique of “private feelings” as a heteronormative script. Corfman’s sense of their interior, a deep and audible inside, is informed by and in tension with queer theory’s critique of the subject of normative gender and desire as a public form that masquerades as essence, a fictional inside. My Daily Actions proves that poetry and queer theory disagree about the importance, even existence of an interior to protect: a house, a room, a gender, a body. If we take Corfman at their word, My Daily Actions “doesn’t mean anything as a theory of gender.” Yet Corfman’s metaphors for gender theorize a way of being at once contained and overflowing, form and flood, a traceable sea. The poem renders the flood as form: queer gender at home inside its jar.

1. S. Brook Corfman, My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 63.

2. Throughout this essay, I use “queer” to name a range of possibilities for identity and becoming, including transgender/trans, gay, nonbinary, and genderqueer. These poems do not depict a gender transition per se, although they might. Cathy Park Hong, in a preface to the book, suggests that Corfman uses the meteor as a metaphor for the self in gender transition.

3. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 528.

4. Corfman, My Daily Actions, 22. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) has been crucial to developing a theory of the ordinary in crisis.

5. Corfman, My Daily Actions, 7. Hereafter cited in text.

6. Biddy Martin, “Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6, nos. 2–3 (1994): 123. Martin’s critique of the foundational antinormative thrust of queer theory (and, importantly, the field’s implicit misogyny and white gay male perspective) informs a growing body of scholarship that is attuned to queer desires for the very normative structures that queer theory has overwhelmingly, but not entirely, repudiated.

7. Antinormative queer theory, increasingly seen to be one dominant strain of thought within the field, affords a broad critique of structures that uphold the rightness and privilege of a heterosexual life. Queer theory has always enabled a range of orientations to the normative, despite the seeming newness of the current “postnormative” moment.

8. Heather Love, “Playing for Keeps,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 25, no. 2 (2019): 258–59.

9. Ben Nichols, Same Old: Queer Theory, Literature, and the Politics of Sameness (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020), 6.

10. Lyn Hejinian, “A Common Sense,” in The Language of Inquiry (Oakland: University of California Press, 2000), 365.

11. See “On Liking Women,” n+1 (Winter 2018).

12. Brad Epps, “The Fetish of Fluidity,” in Homosexuality & Psychoanalysis, ed. Tim Dean and Christopher Lane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 412.

13. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 8.

14. Sedgwick, Tendencies, xii.

15. S. Brook Corfman, Luxury, Blue Lace (Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2019), 65.

16. Hil Malatino, “Future Fatigue: Trans Intimacies and Trans Presents (or How to Survive the Interregnum),” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 6, no. 4 (2019): 640.