Couplets by Maggie Millner book review


Desire can drive us into dangerous situations. That’s certainly the case in poet Maggie Millner’s debut, “Couplets,” which brings a queer coming-out story into the Brooklyn BDSM community. Millner explores what happens when the ferocity of wanting is bound by the restraint of form: Her novel unfolds as a series of poems, mostly the eponymous couplets.

Sound different? It is, and I am glad. Don’t you tire of reading what is essentially the same book, again and again, hoping to feel more alive — and instead settling for comfort, which drains us of vigor?

Millner’s narrator — a 28-year-old poet — tells her love story in both the first and second person, bluffing her way through becoming herself in couplets and prose poems. “Occasionally it occurred to you that it might be better to write the account in the second person,” she explains. “The trouble was that you were also embodied, which meant that you could never quite transcend yourself, or evacuate the frame, or shirk the myth of the grammatical singular.”

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The storyline is simple. A woman betrays her boyfriend for another woman, thereby finding her true sexuality for the first time. With taut, exquisite lines, Millner reveals the nature of her narrator’s sexual desire: voracious, obsessive, recurrent, attentive. Set in linear time, “Couplets” nonetheless eddies in vortexes of philosophical inquiries into control and surrender.

In “Couplets,” slant rhymes meet side glances. “Mostly I can’t see myself at all/until I sense in someone else a parallel,/ like how I only realize what/ I want at the moment I attain it,/ my mind being the final part of me to know.” Sustained by the “loyal, practical, considerate” friends that she and her placid boyfriend share along with a cat and an apartment, she feels less than trendy.

Anguished by the banality of a life spent on “sex and teaching, kale and NPR,” she abandons herself to an affair with a queer, polyamorous editor, thereby breaking the trust he had shown her. “And I can still feel the invisible/ moat we both believed in, on the other side of which/ we knew lay torment, exile, wreckage,/ the anarchy of singledom. Loss upon loss.” To him, that moat “was a sea,/ I think: entirely impassable. To me/ it was a dizzying ravine/ that circled us for years, then cut between.”

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The details of polyamory — more talking than sex, it seems — can be mundane, even in “Couplets,” where “the other girlfriend got most Fridays” while “Tuesdays and Saturdays were mine.” In “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love,” co-authors Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy detailed the extensive communication frameworks needed for ethical nonmonogamy, not to be confused with the nonconsensual nonmonogamy that is more commonly practiced.

More to the point, Hardy and Easton wrote, “pleasure is a complete and worthwhile goal” that needs neither validation nor antiquated moralities. Such lofty aims may be too burdensome for the narrator’s basic boyfriend, who agrees that she can sleep with women, only to revoke his consent. “Shamefaced” though she may be, the narrator cannot help but remain available for a lover who carries handcuffs, sex toys and lubricant in a duffel. He leaves her, she who “handled things ineptly,” carried a copy of “Middlemarch” without ever finishing it and “hurt people I love being so/ late to my desires.”

What shall I tell you of what then transpires between these erudite women during their glamorous constellation of kinky trysts? It is no secret that ardor can careen into disregard amid fights that do not end until there is separation. As the lovers explore each other’s bodies, families and histories, their lust devolves into primordial disagreements about power, wealth and art.

Resigned to the privileged childishness of her dominant lover, the narrator comes to a clearer understanding of her own human fallibility. “For freedom, I have learned, I’d barter/ virtue every time. For any fierce, untrammeled feeling,/ now I know I’d give up almost anything.” Millner depicts a woman fully awakened to the possibilities of being alive, despite the shackles on her hands, mind and heart. Keeping the stakes high on every page, Millner transcends the tawdry to ask readers, obliquely, whether they are sleepwalking through their days.

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In “The Art of Daring,” which Garth Greenwell called “a little philosophical treatise masquerading as a craft book,” Carl Phillips wrote, “I’ve also considered writing as both the result of and the enactment of a restlessness of imagination, a desire to abandon our selves to what we suspect we should resist, even as we know that to resist entirely would likely lead to a form of death-in-life, which is somehow worse than death itself — isn’t it?”

While unmasking the “long and torturous” journey that self-knowledge requires, Millner delights in the small pivots and grooves afforded by strict verse. Even the line breaks provide fractals of the fractured themes of longing, grief, hope and passion. Restless, imaginative and daring, “Couplets” advances the canon of the erotic.

Ambiguity is quite sexy in the right hands. Millner has the grace to leave her protagonist in a state of yearning, as you might well be upon concluding this slim tome of being undone by desire. “Dip your foot in/ if you like. Why not. No one is looking.”

Kristen Millares Young is a prizewinning journalist and essayist and the author of the novel “Subduction.”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 128 pp. $24.75

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