Maggie Millner, Couplets: A Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 128pp. Hardback, $25.00.
For a debut book of poetry, Maggie Millner’s Couplets has received an unusual amount of hype. Blurbs from celebrated novelists, such as Garth Greenwell and Dana Spiotta, as well as the book’s subtitle (“A Love Story”), indicate that this is less a collection of lyric observations than it is a gripping narrative of sex and betrayal.
The mostly first-person speaker of these poems, titled only by number, is a 28-year-old woman who lives in Brooklyn and teaches college composition courses. Pulled along by passionate desire, she leaves her longtime boyfriend and begins a relationship with another woman. The affair is quite intense (lots of orgasms) but destined not to last. It becomes instead a catalyst for self-knowledge and self-growth, leading the speaker to take up writing again and presumably resulting in this book. The poems thus form a kind of kunstlerroman, a narrative account of artistic development.
The spicy descriptions of the couplings constitute a major feature of Millner’s poetry. The speaker appeals, in part, because she is so unabashedly desirous, physically attracted to transgression: “For freedom, I have learned, I’d barter / virtue every time.” Her desire to be tied up (light BDSM characterizes the sex here) is clearly related to her preference for a tight poetic meter rather than a loose torrent of prose.
In one poem, the speaker’s wrists are bound to an IKEA bed, and she fantasizes about her lover carefully putting it all together—the rails, the screws, the slats, “the wooden dowels, / which had seemed too large to fit their holes, / that gently she’s forced in.” Writing in The New Yorker, the poetry critic Kamran Javadizadeh described this passage as “the most erotically intense description of furniture assembly that I have ever read.”
Couplets perhaps nods to John Updike’s Couples, the controversial 1968 novel depicting the swinging and swapping lifestyles of New England suburbanites. But Millner’s title is also quite literal. The book is a long series of rhyming—or nearly rhyming—couplets of various lengths, though typically short. It avoids the sing-song quality that can hamper such a form by opting, again and again, for fresh and unusual rhymes that propel the lines forward in unexpected directions. Part of the fun of this book lies simply in seeing how Millner will arrange her end-rhymes—matching, for example, “drowning us” with “cunnilingus.” (Aptly, New York Times reviewer Adrienne Raphel has praised Millner’s “cunning lingual play.”)
Interspersed among the somewhat traditional couplets are short poems that several reviewers have mischaracterized as prose paragraphs. Written in the second person (rather than the first), each of these is a humorously extended couplet—the first line featuring perhaps 200 words, the second line only ten, and still pulling off the end-rhyme. But the prosy aspect of these interludes allows the poet to disassociate and disrupt the playfulness of the other poems:
Sometimes when you sat down, alone with your mind, you felt you were performing both parts of an elaborate duet, not unlike the one you played in sex, where you drifted in and out of corporality like a vapor hovering around its boiling point.
Ultimately, Millner’s book focuses on the couplet as an essential form of identity. Just as the mirror was the key, for French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, to explaining how a person develops a sense of self, the dialectic of couplehood gives Millner’s speaker the self-knowledge she needs to develop as a person and as a writer. Altering the first person with the second person—both I and you, both subject and object—allows the poet to become a couple unto herself—up to a point.
“It occurred to you that it might be better to write the account in the second person,” Millner suggests, “but you could never quite transcend yourself, or evacuate the frame, or shirk the myth of the grammatical singular.” Even here, at her most Rimbaudian, critiquing “the sovereignty of I,” she concedes that the elimination of the self isn’t exactly desirable. Better to displace the self onto the page and revise it, shape it, make it cohere. “Maybe I really am a poet, // needing as I do from these imperfect sets, / which constitute a self, the lie of sense.”
A senior editor at the Yale Review, Millner sprinkles more than a few explicit literary references into these poems. In addition to gestures to canonical favorites such as George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf, Couplets also brings in quotes from living writers such Rachel Cusk, Louise Glück, Vivian Gornick, Rachel Hadas, Jamaica Kincaid, and Nathalie Léger. It thus creates the company in which it finds itself and announces its presence in the room.
And indeed, the language in Couplets is artful and amusing. The storytelling has a casual and straightforward style that will no doubt appeal to many readers who would otherwise shy away from works of poetry; as the critic Anahid Nersessian observes, “Couplets could almost sound like someone talking.” But the poetic pyrotechnics are nevertheless at the center of the project, inextricable from the erotic charge of the verses. Millner’s speaker describes herself as “a beautiful deciduous slut / of language,” dropping her rhymes and quotations like autumn leaves.
In a recent interview, Millner has said that the couplet form “pretends to arrive at closure over, and over, and over again. There’s an assumption that the couple is a closed container, but the couplet unravels that assumption through repetition.” As a formalist exercise, Couplets enacts this extravagance, spilling out of the structure that would restrain a lesser work.