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Above All Else: Desire in Maggie Millner

Freddie Sendon graphic art of tangled green rope

Art by Freddie Seddon

Phillippa Conlon reviews Couplets: A Love Story (2023) by Maggie Millner.


Love poetry is a risky business. There is something achingly adolescent about writing it, even something faintly awkward about reading it. To churn out couplet after couplet is, then, to expose both writer and reader to a confession that hangs somewhere between nervous sincerity and mawkish desire. Maggie Millner in her debut Couplets: A Love Story (2023) seems all too aware of this.

The couplet is a well-worn form. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, it offers a tidy conclusion, affirmations of the beloved’s immortality. For the Augustan poets, the couplet catered to that neoclassical impulse for control and decorum. This is a poetic inheritance laden with literary luggage. There is, then, a warped sense of irony in Millner’s deployment of the form. In a matter of lines, the speaker leaves ‘the boyfriend at the center [she] revered’ for an affair with a woman, a mutual friend turned ‘new lover’. The couplets detailing this disentanglement read as a desperate attempt to organise and re-order a dissolving relationship, to sound into sense the painful conclusion of a seemingly sensible set-up. The rhyme, though, is unavoidably conspicuous. Our instinct might be to cringe at its conscious attempt at completion but an awareness of this heavy-handed reach for contrived certainty seeps into the poetry itself.

Couplets opens with a ‘breathless’ sense of belatedness. ‘All my life I’ve shown up late’, the speaker declares. It is a disconcerting beginning, inadvertently admitting to the artifice of its own architecture. ‘I’ve hurt people I love being so/ late to my desires’, she continues; the compulsion to confess, it seems, is irresistible. The sentence spills out over the rhyme, disrupting its own desperate attempt to define its sense. Instead, the couplet plays host to a sense of postponement, of constantly renewing curiosity. Couplets is animated by the tension between the impulse to read life into reason, almost retroactively, through the very process of its writing and a desire that courses beneath this rationality and cannot be contained.

It is not that this desire is always submerged. On the contrary, Couplets thrives on the extravagant nature of its display. The speaker is quickly embroiled in what she (rather blandly) terms an ‘alternative relationship model’. Her girlfriend, she helpfully explains, ‘was also dating someone else’. This triangulated love affair almost spirals into farce with this ‘girlfriend’s other girlfriend’ seeing both a hedge-fund manager and a novelist in a complicated arrangement of voyeurism and literary ambition. All of this would verge on the gratuitously graphic if we did not see the agonised speaker who ‘clutch[es] [herself] and weep[s]’ as her girlfriend packs toiletries and a harness to play out this pantomime of polyamorous intimacy. In short, Millner walks a tightrope between the transgressive and the trite and, at times, it is a balancing act that she can’t quite pull off. It is, for example, almost too easy when the narrator suspects that her desire for subordination stems from Catholic guilt; the connection is too clichéd even to resurrect itself in subversiveness. Or take the comparison between bondage and assembling an Ikea bed as another instance of these poetic pyrotechnics, episodes that prove both exhilarating and excruciating in their openness.

Everyone has the same Ikea bed.

She tied my wrists to hers, above my head.

Freddie Sendon graphic artwork of red tangled rope

Even in early reviews of the book, much has been made of the scene. The New York Times hails it as an inheritor of Donne’s ‘Flea’, revelling in the same wry raciness. At the very least, it is hard not to admire the metaphor’s imaginative resourcefulness but perhaps there is something more searching going on than simply sexed up verse. The image toys with the wit by which, as Samuel Johnson once claimed, the ‘most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Is this a reprise of Donne’s ‘stiff twin compasses’? Can desire hover somewhere between the metaphysical, the mortifying, the mundane and the modish?

Millner is, of course, acutely aware of her work’s erotic edge. In a prose section that punctuates the poetry, she claims, borrowing from Audre Lorde, that when ‘the erotic [is] expressed, [it is] often mistaken for the pornographic and dismissed out of hand’. The comment is a caveat, meeting the reader’s potential squeamishness in a steely side-glance. This is not exhibitionism, she seems to say, but exploration, and it is not for us, as readers, to condemn it. The bodily is countered by the intangibly abstract but there is a constant risk of this careful counterbalance tipping into cliché. It is not just Lorde: Millner ventriloquises various voices throughout Couplets (Woolf, Kincaid, to name a few). This may be a deliberate effort to marshal the cerebral to match the carnal, but, at times, it reads as an attempt at self-justification.

The temptation, Millner claims on the LA Review of Books Radio Hour, is to see the ‘confessional as a pretext for autobiography’. Especially, she speculates, if the writer is a woman or queer, as if a story about ‘coming out’ demands that the real is only thinly veiled by the fictive, less an imaginative effort and more a helplessly spontaneous outburst of feeling. The tendency to conflate the ‘I’ of the speaker with that of the writer is, of course, always there, particularly in lyric poetry. It is perhaps reassuring to explain emotional extremity in terms of actual experience but Millner’s verse novel renders this nearly impossible. The form navigates the interstices of poetry and prose, and its essayistic sections extricate the reader from the solipsism of its verse. Instead comes the instinct to intellectualise; the speaker, who has been ‘halfway’ through Middlemarch ‘for more than half [her] life’, now muses that ‘the relationship between writer and reader has grown especially transactional, didactic, a peculiar kind of literalism has taken hold’. Couplets is archly aware of its own bookishness. But the tendency to oscillate between poetry, couched in the confessional, and prose that announces its own cleverness reads as an obtrusive switch in gear. The speaker suddenly sidesteps intimate details of her life to remark that ‘[o]utside, entire species/ were expiring. Fascism had come/ back into vogue’. The rather glib comment pre-empts a potential charge of navel-gazing, tinged by an anxiety of being too ‘inside’.

‘[I]t might be better to write the account in the second person’, the narrator ventures. This is not a dissociative abdication from the interiority of her own narrative but instead an invitation to implicate the reader in it. We are no longer spectators but actors. The ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘she’ all merge in something between accusation and collaboration. Maybe it is a textual extension of her desire, the culmination of her claim that she ‘can’t see [herself] at all/ until [she] sense[s] in someone else a parallel’. A prayer for proximity now replicated on the page, a communion as literary as it is carnal.

When the speaker’s new relationship ultimately fails, she concludes that the ‘proof of life is in the aching’. The attempt to sift her experience into a linear story is left unfulfilled. ‘The sovereignty of I’ is exposed as an illusion; there is no definitive self to theorise into sense. Nor is the exact alternative the ‘entropic’, irresistible pull towards decay and dissolution that she proposes. It is not that all her thwarted relationships lead to ‘shards of glass’, self-abnegation and therapy. Instead, she asserts that love is, ‘above all else, the engine of self-knowledge’. Is this revelation, or loneliness recast as convenient enlightenment? It is certainly the first time that this instinct for intimacy is turned inwards. Couplets abandons its search for resolution, embraces its own relentlessness. ‘Aching’, then, is exactly right - that dulled, incessant pulse of something suspended between pain and pleasure. What makes this bearable, even worthwhile, the speaker insists, is that she is ‘bonded/ to [herself] by [her] authority alone’. Couplets closes on not just a declaration of self-sufficiency but also of self-authored desire and it is to this that the form caters, not closure but exposure.

PHILIPPA CONLON is studying English Language and Literature at Oxford University. She suspects she could become a corporate sell-out.


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