Couples and form in Maggie Millner’s ‘Couplets’

“You can’t be lonely,/ after all, if you’re not inside yourself,” poet Maggie Millner writes in her debut book, Couplets. “You can’t be dwelling if you’re somewhere else.”

As we close out National Poetry Month, it is more than appropriate to highlight an up-and-coming poet who is taking the poetry scene by storm. Couplets may be Maggie’s first published book, but she is far from new to poetry: she is a lecturer at Yale University, previously served as Colgate University’s Fellow in Poetry, and has appeared in publications from The New Yorker to POETRY.

Couplets, published in February of 2023 and officially categorized as a novel in verse, follows the romantic and erotic journey of our unnamed speaker as she falls in love with an alluring literary woman, leaving her long-term boyfriend in order to be with the transformative ‘Her.’ 

Maggie’s poems ooze a kind of easy sensuality, mirroring our protagonist’s embrace of her own sexuality in the explicit nature of the verse. Every moment of Couplets feels intimate in more ways than one – with the insight into the speaker’s desire, we get so close to her mind that it is hard to find room to breathe.

Maggie’s poems ooze a kind of easy sensuality, mirroring our protagonist’s embrace of her own sexuality in the explicit nature of the verse.

The book is written primarily in the titular couplet style, with two lines grouped together at a time to form what might appear to be a complete unit – rhyming, paralleling each other, and acting as insular as we might suppose couples to be. And yet, as Maggie explores, the couplets actually expose the fallibility of pairings. Her book is ripe with slant rhymes that teeter from unbalanced lengths. We realize that lines that seem like two parts of one whole are actually sentences in their own right. 

Despite the defined couplet structure, there are moments where the narrative slips out of verse. Maggie begins the book with what she calls a ‘proem,’ and writes a number of pages entirely in prose. These prosaic instances are all in second person, in moments where the speaker needs to extend outside of herself (as she tells her boyfriend it is over, for example). “You no longer felt that experiences belonged to people in the first place,” writes the speaker, a poet herself. Shifting genres feels, for her, like more of a coping mechanism than a power over words. 

In instances like these, Maggie’s book is an exploration in form. It is unusual in this day and age to see a poet still writing in rhyming verse, but this structure gives the poetry a traditional feel until the very end. The rhyme, however, is complicated. While it would be easy to say this mirrors her journey out of a more traditional relationship and towards both experimental relationships and form, the rhyming never quite goes away. It is not perfect. Every once and awhile, the occasional couplet doesn’t seem to go together at all, but despite this we are never allowed to stop believing that there are groupings that seem to go together, whether that be words or people. It is hard to get away from such ideas, and we can understand why the speaker is having trouble finding an individual self. 

The nature of ‘couplets’ is ironic – there is not a single relationship in this book that is only made up of two people.

The nature of ‘couplets’ is ironic – there is not a single relationship in this book that is only made up of two people. The first relationship with the speaker’s boyfriend is plagued with the intrusion of the woman, and that pairing is complicated by the fact that her girlfriend is polyamorous. The verse mirrors this – the couplets are deceptive in their full stop and unification. In Millner’s verse, the line break that comes at the end of a pair is disrupted by the sentence’s unexpected overhang. 

[…] After college I stopped writing 

    about sex and then stopped writing

the word I and then stopped writing any word

   at all. [..]

This cadence, full of pauses and turns, is a feature to Maggie’s works beyond Couplets. While some pairings complete, others don’t – just like relationships. “[T]his book is an experiment in thinking through the question, What if staying together wasn’t the tacit objective of every relationship?” Millner said in an interview with The Paris Review. “In Poetic Closure, Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes that the couplet is a unit that enacts closure. Every two lines, there’s resolution. And so there’s a propulsive momentum to the form, but it also 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.”

While Maggie has us focus on the ‘two-ness’ of the couplet, the book’s most meaningful moments come with its studies of one.

While Maggie has us focus on the ‘two-ness’ of the couplet, the book’s most meaningful moments come with its studies of one. Although the story explicitly follows the speaker’s “coming-out, coming-of-age, and coming undone,” its real gut-punch comes in its exploration of self. 

It is intimate to watch the speaker uncover her sexuality, true, but it is downright revelatory to see how she strongly defines herself through her relationships. She is initially unable to conceive of herself except as extensions of her partners. At one point, she tells us that she is turning into her girlfriend; in another, she “could feel [herself] become [her boyfriend].” In a particularly revealing passage, the speaker thinks of herself as a “conduit / between them: a conversation they conducted / with my mouth.” 

And yet, when we reach the end of the book, the speaker is alone. She has coped with the uncharted path of leaving the safety of a man she once loved, and she has experienced the joy of loving a woman in ways she once thought were not possible. 

There are no distraught revelations when the story comes to a close – no regret about her choices, no desperate attempt to win one or either, or both, of them back. Instead, in the final poem, she tells us that “I am my own husband…bonded/ to myself by my authority alone.” 

The first ‘proem’ of the book, before we delve into the story, begins with the couplet: 

I became myself. 

     I became myself. 

In these final moments, then, the speaker has rediscovered a couplet that will always rhyme.

© Catherine Sawoski (5/8/23) – Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE / DO MORE 

Visit Maggie’s website to learn more about her work here.

Check out the full Paris Review interview.

Purchase Couplets from the publisher.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Person falling through purple water. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Tags: Catherine Sawoski, Couplets, Literary Arts, Maggie Millner, poetry, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Verse

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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