A Dyke in Alameda County––or––The Geographies of Kay Gabriel’s A Queen in Bucks County
Last spring, I missed a poetry reading that Kay Gabriel gave in Oakland. To compensate for missing out on the reading and hanging out with friends, I went and picked up a copy of A Queen in Bucks County from Moe’s Books. This same week, I also start looking for a new place to live. In between writing for work and prepping to teach, I send emails to dozens of strangers, make phone calls, and show up at people’s apartments in an attempt to present myself as someone anyone would want to live with. I entertain the intimacy of cohabitation with people I’ve only just met––it is both strange and banal.
Sitting in a parking lot, waiting to interview with two people who describe themselves as “mature adults,” I start reading Gabriel’s poems: letters written to friends and lovers, scenes charting an endless circuit of public transportation and weekend long fucks. InBucks County boroughs and bodies blur and, caught up in this blur, I realize that between the gaps of my apartment searching, I’m trying to feel my way into some new desire to be in the East Bay. I stumble into neighborhoods with my arms open, hands groping, eyes lingering over bougainvillea vines, tracking which streets feel good against the hip roll of my gait, and clocking balconies crowded with potted ferns.
Reflecting on her attachments to place Gabriel writes “By origin or not I am “of” the city until I can’t be––a choice as choices go, made within constraints, one of which is surely beauty” (22). I think about being “of” as a prepositional relationship of dependence and genealogy, constitution and contingency. To be “of” something is to be made up of it or descended from it. To put “of” in quotes, then, is to highlight or question the authenticity of this relationship. How is anyone made up of a place? In Gabriel’s poetry, to be made up of a place also means you’ve got to want it. Which is to say, New York is a place that furnishes the sparkle of identifications, and these identifications are charted in dialogue with a desire for others. Whether netted to a boy who’d rather be called someone’s cat than someone’s daddy or a lover named Vampire Mortgage, desire becomes a way to become “of” the city. But as Gabriel’s desire cruises for beauty, beauty as a generative constraint, binds her to the city with a tenacious grip.
Cruising for beauty, I text a friend and ask if she wants to take a walk around Lake Merritt. The sun is setting and unusually massive clouds top the golden sparkle of reflected sun in apartment buildings. A thick skin of green algae blankets the edges of the water. The blue sky looks beyond blue. Pelicans and night heron bob around bobbing tin cans and other bits of trash. Willa jokes she is in her slut era, going on dates with several hot girls a week. I joke I’m entering yet another year of my queer-modernist era, in the baroque and depressive style of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. “I’m hoping you’ll enter your Jean Genet era soon,” she responds, bestowing me with a wish of liberated, criminal hotness.
I am not “of” the Bay Area but I have made choices that keep me within its boundaries and I do, with a certain desire, weave myself into its fabric. I commit to the bit of loving it. “I do” I say out loud to the Oakland Hills, all while questioning this performative constraint. As we continue our walk, I notice the smell of goose shit intermingled with rose bushes. I can’t identify a gnarled tree whose bark flakes off when I touch it but I like the way it looks, so I take a few pictures and upload them to iNaturalist: Tea Tree, it suggests. Beauty as a constraint ties me to the idea that this place holds its arms open to me, that a view of the bay is a promise of spaciousness, an open horizon, the future. Parking ourselves on a bench, Willa and I watch a few people jog by and speculate about two dykes who might be on a first date––an awkward tilt of the head, an overeager nod, close but not touching, all signs point to yes. A view of the bay promises an opening onto desire.
In one moment Gabriel writes, “I am no allegorist. I am a geographer” (47). In a similar moment her heteronym, Turner, writes a letter to someone named Jo and professes, “I think you’re a lyricist of infatuation and I’m a geographer of arousal” (62). Jettisoning the implications of hidden meanings, or a code that must be cracked, Gabriel suggests that her poetry maps the city, surveying and sketching the lacework of relationships and sex, replete with an interest in social difference and inequality. What does it mean to be a white fag in a gentrified and gentrifying Flatbush? What does it mean to rub shoulders with the tech girls of Brooklyn and their “halo of money”? Framing these questions, Gabriel moves from apartment to apartment, moves between tricks and lovers, takes baths and writes letters. She grapples with the precarity of being trans or trying to pay rent, all while having hot sex and raging against the systems that keep bodies annexed to a city’s margins. As she writes: “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” (24).
Willa asks me how my housing search is going. The last she’s heard I’d gone to see a room where, attached to the dining room, the owners of the house had installed a large glass room where a two-foot iguana named Lola lived. I sit in the living room with Lola’s owners and follow the script of our situation, a gesture that suggests I will consider renting their basement bedroom. In the subsequent days, I spend hours scrolling Craigslist, eyeing rooms in El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Albany. It is cruising at its least sexy––not who do I want to take to bed, but will my bed fit into this room, and how much will it cost me. I talk on the phone with a woman who lives two blocks from the lake. She’s queer and works in a hospital. Despite having lived in Oakland for eight years she tells me, “It’s my home but I recognize that I’ll always be a visitor, this city isn’t mine to claim––I’m a gentrifier.” I appreciate her recognition. I get offered a different room in a house off of Grand but worry about accepting it. In the house interview, I am addressed as she and I don’t feel comfortable interjecting. I wake up in the middle of the night and send an email saying, “thanks but no thanks.” As much as looking for a room maps who lives where, it also charts how my body feels, or feels like it is welcome in certain spaces.
Gabriel’s maps are multiform and heterodox, at times pornographic, campy, or philosophical. She makes comment on tri-state area public transportation just as much as she lists the merits of a lover’s cock. “I am a lollipop on SEPTA” (1) she chirrups, a foray into Philly swings back around to New York, she’s taking a bus to Bergen County, she’s riding regional rail, she’s sizing up a train conductor with tattoos. At one point, she takes a survey, asking her friends what time of day is best for fucking. Voicing a preference for afternoons, Gabriel narrates the dependable joy of being face-fucked by someone named Cam. She writes, “Pleasure in a reliable procedure has its own surprise. An aesthetic emerges out of the gap of repetition” (31). Out of the gap of repetition, a body discovers what it likes, though this reliability in taste offers room for the unexpected. In the afternoons, I drive the same routes from Berkeley to Oakland, my pleasure in feeling held or lightly choked by Alameda County is consistent despite its variation.
Willa and I walk back to her studio apartment. In the backyard there’s a loquat tree and, in the kitchen, a bag of these small yellow fruits spill onto the floor. Their browning bits are soft and broken, wetting the paper bag. It’s finally stone fruit season which means that every time I go out for a walk, I put sticky things into my mouth. I’ve developed a reliable procedure for eating loquats. At the cross street between Rose and Edith a tree overhangs from someone’s backyard. Sometimes I can reach the fruit standing on the sidewalk though sometimes I have to stand on a nearby fire hydrant and reach. I grab one or two fruits and methodically rub the fuzz off of them. Starting at the stem, I peel the skin back in little strips, exposing a pale-yellow flesh. Then I put the whole thing in my mouth, being careful not to bite down on the smooth brown seeds inside. Sometimes I spit the half-inch seeds into my palm, sometimes I roll them around on my tongue, biting gently. Sometimes I am surprised when the seeds slip out of my mouth, skidding on the sidewalk in front of me. Stone fruit season offers pleasure in a reliable procedure. It has its own surprises.
Halfway through the book, Gabriel’s letters leave New York and turn up on a trip to Southern California. She is disoriented and flush with an unexpected sense of ennui: how do you flirt with a place that feels alien, a silent spread-out suburb illuminated by the soft glow of highway lights and the hush of airplanes overheard? Stalking a grocery store, she writes: “Who says you can’t be a flâneur in LA––the cocoa puffs agree, I’m at the center of this stoplight town, I’ve arrived but nobody knows it! I must remember to fire my publicist. Stephen speaks convincingly about Los Angeles, he says Santa Monica and it means something, to me it’s just the names of famous beaches” (43). Dovetailing each other, these sentences outline the overlap of desire and placemaking. A friend, Stephen, can talk about LA and it “means something,” it implies a relationship. For Gabriel, to make meaning of a place depends on the flâneur’s ability to wander and make eyes at someone or something––to see and be seen––to feel attracted or attractive, to cultivate an appetite.
I often joke that the queer community in the East Bay is the size of a single lentil. It is easy to feel seen––in good and bad ways. It is also easy to makes eyes at others, in a gesture of solidarity or checking someone out. In memes and Instagram accounts, the internet confirms that Trader Joe’s is the millennial-queer stomping grounds for seeing and being seen by your exes and crushes. But anyone who has frequented the mile-long produce section of Berkeley Bowl knows that regional differences matter, and local options for grocery shopping tend to reel the queers in. The tension runs highest where the organic kale and citrus overflow. When I tell Willa where an apartment is that I’ve just gone to see, it doesn’t seem odd to describe its location in relation to its proximity to Berkeley Bowl. It’s an arcade for the flâneur, a landmark, unavoidable.
Ultimately, I am in the process of looking for a new place to live because my landlord has informed me that his son is interested in moving into my housemate’s and my unit. I don’t think this is legal. But after months of unresolved plumbing issues, I decide not to press the issue. My kitchen sink habitually filled up with black water, the toilet overflowed, the bathroom sink never drained. I learned how to take apart the pipes and scoop rust colored sludge out of the wall. But the space was a home, it had big windows, wood floors, and generations of grad students’ plants, gifted by those who had moved abroad or very far away. Every housemate I had, and the friends who lived in the apartment upstairs, were queer or trans. The space was falling apart, the space was an anchorage and an outlet for gossip, trans rage, comradery in heartbreak, and talking about writing. I want to resist sentimentality because as a genre it implies a moral, but I felt sore when it came to packing up my things.
In a letter addressed to Connie, Gabriel outlines three sections: 1.) A DEVICE, 2.) THE STATEMENT, and 3.) TRAVEL WARNING FOR CONSTANCE AUGUSTA. Here she implicates how transsexuals have been used as literary devices that index social decay or act as “window dressing for public spaces seductively in crises” (27). Again, I think about Barnes. In Nightwood, she describes the room of her transfeminine antihero, Dr. Matthew O’Connor, as a “cross between a chambre á coucher and a boxer’s training camp” (86). It is in this muscularly feminine space, filled with books, rusted medical equipment, and makeup, that Matthew voices a desire for “a high soprano” and “a bosom” (97). It is also here that Matthew maps the night for Norah, infusing it with violence and longing, fecundity and decay. But more to the point, Gabriel’s letter opens up space for her to sketch the contours of her own generic affinities. What does it mean to write trans literature when you’re aware of the constraints that it engenders? What histories do we chafe against in this process? She writes:
I wrote Bucks County on a diagonal from trans literature because I don’t appreciate being first outed then hailed as pretty but dumb or hopelessly abstract, which I expect will continue until I scare off the haters pornographically. Let’s say these are one and the same coin: a literature of the city, dicking around in the afterimage of modernism, in which transsexuals always mean something else; a private literature of recognition. Let the motherfuckers further consider that their metaphor might come easily to life and, living, need housing in that glamorous, impoverished city, and testify to something other than an origin story that could be blurbed as important (27).
Writing on a diagonal, Gabriel’s writing may be a “literature of the city” that engages with modernism’s legacy, but its politics of representation and address abrade abstractions, or representations of transsexuals as metonyms that “mean something else.” We have bodies, we fuck, we need to eat and pay rent. Coming to life, Gabriel writes in heteronyms rather than metonyms. In some ways, this passage echoes her claim to being “of the city.” As a private literature of recognition, I recognize the trans-poet-geographer of arousal that narrates Buck County as a voice that squawks, whispers, lilts, and screams in order to testify to the fact that our desires are material, as are our material needs.
When I do choose a new room to move into, it feels temporary. “I’m in transit again!” (29) Gabriel writes. Moving from apartment to apartment often feels like just that: a transition from one point to the next that promises to repeat itself. But what remains constant is Alameda County and my desire to live here. There is a view of the hills from my new front porch, there is a lemon tree in the backyard.
Djuna Barnes. Nightwood. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2006.
Kay Gabriel. A Queen in Bucks County. New York: Nightboat Books, 2022.