S. Brook Corfman’s prize-winning first full-length collection Luxury, Blue Lace (Autumn House Press, 2019) enacts the on-going construction of a self. The identity being examined, deconstructed and re-constructed by the speaker of these poems is both an interior self and the physical, gendered, exterior self and body as presented to and perceived by the social world. That Corfman’s collection should be published at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to roll back civil rights protections for trans Americans and is trying to pressure the United Nations into removing the term “gender” from human rights documents (pushing to replace phrases such as “gender-based violence” with “violence against women,” for example) only heightens the stakes for the speaker in these poems.
In the opening section, titled “Processional (eight dolls),” the reader learns that the construction of the self will not follow a direct route. Indeed, how often is the path to self-knowledge a straight line? Corfman deftly exploits the dual meanings of “processional.” As a noun it can refer to a book containing the rituals observed during a religious procession, or it can refer to the music accompanying a procession; as an adjective it is of or relating to a procession, as in the act of moving forward, of proceeding in an orderly and formal manner. The section title alerts the reader that the speaker will be moving forward and these poems will serve as guide and accompaniment. But Corfman immediately subverts the expectation of an orderly processional by opening the section with number 2, followed by number 7, followed by number 3. No orderly procession, this. No straight line here. Instead, the reader is shown eight dolls in a disorderly procession in which each doll can be seen to represent a different possible self, each doll is an “opened eye // from within which I looked up at myself.” Doll number 2 was bought by a child with a boy’s body who
saved for her a year
and defers to her, thinks of her
each moment he holds her up. Every inch
a model. Even the parted lip.
Whereas doll number 2 serves as one model for a possible future self, doll 3 models the act of bringing that self into being: “as she came alive, first delivered // in pieces, fabric, cotton puffs, yarn.” This patchwork doll is literally constructed into existence the way we will see the speaker of these poems construct a self and an existence throughout the course of the collection. And yet the act of creation, of stitching together raw materials, misses some mark, for “a portrait bears no likeness, / a passing face mistakes her.” Indeed, self-creation is sometimes awkward, hit-and-miss work. In addition to the dolls—all of which clearly present as traditional girl dolls, “ribboned” or “always in a skirt” or “crinoline”—the speaker possesses the accessories for the dolls, the external trappings of what is seen as female: boxes full “of what Child wants to wear, what he buys / for her to fold and put away.” This boy-bodied child wants to wear skirts and dresses but puts them on the dolls instead, sensing already that this is as close as the world will allow a seemingly male body to present/possess a seemingly female self. In this way, the doll “is and is / not a possibility.” As the processional closes (instead of opens) with number 1 the speaker says,
You can learn at least this much
without a proper sequence:
a child, desperation, a twin brother, how the child
chooses a form but only after
is told what the options were.
Corfman’s speaker is not only acting out the post-modern question of whether a stable (interior) self exists. This speaker also is questioning and constructing a gender identity that by necessity interacts with and is acted upon by the social world. In the long middle section of the collection the speaker traces this personal and bodily journey of self-recognition and self-identification in poems like “(The Crisis),” wherein Corfman writes:
I can feel myself saying, I used to want to be a girl –
long years of brackets close again in lines
Fault from rock split space into which a sad animal,
plush, was placed.
Later, in “(Telepathy),” the speaker addresses “[d]yphoria of many kinds, but some more striking that others: long hair, closed doors, scales, the dragging back from other rooms to the one that breathed softly as it slept.” The male-presenting child tries out different ways of presenting to the world and is dragged back from those other rooms—which I read as other bodies, other identities, other possibilities—to the stubborn way the social world insists on gendering the physical body. The speaker concludes that “[i]t’s easy to hide as what’s expected.” That is, the child hides the not-boy self inside the expected boy-body seen by the social world. “‘He has stopped wearing his skirt in the daytime,’” reads a later poem.
But at what cost? When the male-presenting body was a child, Corfman writes in “(Matrilineal),” there was less understanding about how to respond to a child’s questioning of their gender identity, and there was even less room for a boy to wear a skirt. “The psychologist says if I were a child now he would advise my parents to proceed differently. / To help the child manifest their conviction of a certain self-knowledge. / A conviction of self I cannot recover, if I had it,” the speaker reflects. That such an approach wasn’t taken (and instead the child experienced “[a] coercion. // For safety, ease, the ease of others. Lone birch”) leaves this speaker creating that self and self-knowledge now. The social world refused to accept a child’s understanding of gender and the self, and as a result this speaker spends years trying to sew their doll-self back together. “Perhaps a hybrid thing is the thing that looks like a man but was made in the ocean.”
These poems map out the creation and transformation of a self and a body, and Corfman’s language does not shy from the difficult necessity of that. In the long poem “(Obscure / Clear),” Corfman refers to a “[w]olf in wolf’s clothing” and calls the pelt “a pretty he will shiver off.” We see the speaker’s “strangled form in the purple room” and the speaker thinks “I still walk incorrectly.” This speaker must reconsider everything about the self, must reconstruct even the body’s gait and “invent a more straight- // forward stride.” (Oh, that line break! Oh, the layers Corfman achieves.) The speaker seeks “[a] new alignment,” but it’s not clear they achieve it, for in “(Trace / Texture)” Corfman writes, “[f]or a long time I didn’t build myself, thought I did but crafted only those shapes on the surface” and “I started thinking about the thing I made when I thought I was making myself.”
Corfman understands that for a self-aware speaker the making of a self is never complete and reminds readers of this by closing Luxury, Blue Lace not with a recessional, as we might expect, but with another processional, another entrance. In the closing section titled “Processional (ten voices),” nine of those voices belong to revenants—those who return from a lengthy absence, especially those who return after death. This speaker returns to the self—to the selves, to all those dolls that are and are not possibilities—again and again. “I’m making my own standards and judging them,” the speaker says in “Ninth Revenant.” Returning from the dead, exiting the text on a processional, “trying to find the line and its cease,” the poems in Luxury, Blue Lace stay in the reader’s mind long after the final page, which is an invitation to return to the first page, to continue the procession.