Review: ‘Couplets’ by Maggie Millner


Couplets is both an ode to the couplet, a pair of successive rhyming lines in poetry, and the romantic twosome. In it, the work’s lyrical speaker finds herself in the throes of a fervid love affair with another woman, the derailment of which propels her toward reflections regarding personhood, queer womanhood, and the intoxicating snags of couplehood.

The push and pull that exists between both sound and two bodies, aroused and resounding, is marked most clearly by the words, 

“Mostly I can’t see myself at all until I sense in someone else a parallel.”

This need for reflection, whether of ideas, desires, physicality, or hunger, allows for the sneaking of fantasy, “fetish,” and the discrepancy of feeling into the mundane. What emerges from this overwhelming need is an infatuation with “lived causality.” 

And yet, the speaker seems constantly propelled by the effect of any given situation, not its cause. She accepts the end of a fulfilling, long-term relationship when her boyfriend declares it done, not at the moment of sinking into bed with a woman that had come to live under her skin, thereby betraying his trust. 

And so, the extent of both her ecstasy and torment seems forever determined by those partaking in it. Naturally, this lack of self-preservation proves to be a heady stimulant. It also can’t be perceived as true passivity because of the intensity with which her mind endures any kind of friction.

What breaks up the structural and rhythmic couplets are pieces of metafiction meant to broaden our sense of the speaker’s headspace. Written in the second person, they come across as moralistic, reflective, and somewhat elusive, giving a self-aware nod to the reader, 

“The relationship between writer and reader had grown especially transactional, didactic; a peculiar kind of literalism had taken hold.”

They also create the space for BDSM to prove an escape from the communal sigh of the “precariat,” the matter of the dwindling species on the planet, the fascism that “had come back into vogue,” and the daunting “era of overt misinformation,” despite being tied to the idea of restraint in a very literal sense.

However distracting at times, these paragraphs take on the form of discourse, attempting to perceive — and present — “bare feelings as particularly literary.” That’s because emotion is always, indisputably, at the core of Couplets. It also allows the structural couplet to find its echo in the realm of context,

“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.”

Here, we glimpse the union of sex and meditation, a literal clash between the sacred and the profane. Because the two glide over and into each other, both masking and unveiling something disconcerting, Couplets takes on the mesmerizing form of an exclamation mark. 

Everything is a scream, a recognition of its own limitations. And so, the carnality that feeds the narrative defies the vague notion of desire. In the end, the speaker’s world orbits possession, ascension, and the dominance of form over its epitome,

“I longed to be her property. I wanted her to smell me in her nail beds all day long.”

What we cling to, as a result, is the degree to which we’re transformed by our lovers, how we become them when traversing the planes of new love, and how we connect them through our bodies. This symbiosis is as profound as it is deeply erotic. For that reason, desire is never a means to an end, but the essence of life itself, 

“finding for one’s time on earth a shape that feels more native than imposed — a shape in which desire, having chosen it, can multiply.” 

Consequently, a romantic relationship recasts itself as a bridge. To reach its conclusion means to have outlived its intent. Whatever melancholy surfaces in the body, as a result, expresses the unrooted sense of persevering in a world that’s constantly on the brink of passing. This vague allusion to memento mori can be felt most acutely in the words, “light, though it can age us, doesn’t age.”

Couplets is also deeply referential, citing various works by female writers, thus giving rise to a voice not factual “but somehow actual.” This blanket of words both felt and infinitely expressed harbors the effort of trying to create some distance between the self and its point of fixation. 

Through somewhat obscure references, archaic language, a second-person narrative, and verbal fights with words made like toxins, Millner manages to capture the frenzy of the present moment; the static buzzing of a dust mote, the impotence and limitations of an attuned conscience.

In short, we’re left dealing with the essence of being, carried this way and that by forces removed from our skin. Are we ever truly caught in the agonizing throes of rapture, or are we merely making noise to remind ourselves — and others — that we exist enough to attain its prospect? In Couplets, the answer proves superbly unclear,

“children on the swing set making the exact sound of humanity.”

Ultimately, though, there doesn’t seem to be enough substance to make us feel— and ache to outlive— the weight of the central love story. Off-kilter and hazy, and not very congruous at all, the key figures hover on the page like silhouettes, slipping down the margin as soon as a rhyme reaches its end.

Publication date: February 7, 2023 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


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