Maggie Millner’s debut, Couplets, is a novel in couplets, but also a lyric in lithe but taut paired lines. Better maybe to say that it gestures at the novel, particularly the great love stories—and misadventures—of the nineteenth-century novel. It’s not so much a narrative as the remains of a narrative, as if the set-up and emplotting have been removed, as if the sentences had been stretched sometimes, or compressed, working their way into a long-lined rhythm that suits the rhyming couplets well. The rhymes are often muted, made so by their off-kilter relationships, like “sex” and “transgress” or “husband” and “Casaubon.” There are occasional prose poems, too, but mostly what unfolds unfolds—and disintegrates—across this book-length sequence of two-lined stanzas: a voice detailing its own undoing. The voice tells of a relationship with a man that falls apart as the speaker falls in love with a woman, first with the man’s encouragement, then despite his resistance. It is, then, the voice of coming out, a set of poems—or is it one long poem?—that finds a form for that life-altering moment of emergence, that particular pain, that astonishment, that retrospective confusion, not to mention the fierce lusts and splintered histories that carry it forward. The woman who opens up the speaker’s desire “found me in the winter at a bar”:
one of those places in Bed-Stuy not far
from Clinton Hill—a platonic meeting
set up by a friend who worked in media
and thought we’d get along. I got there first and snatched
a booth and started reading Middlemarch,
a novel I’ve been halfway through for more
than half my life. When she strode through the door,
Oh shit, I love that book, I’ve read it fifteen
times, she said, and asked my favorite scene …
The writing that follows is as hot as it is devastating, as searingly analytical—and literary analysis, too—as it is direct, neither arch nor innocent. This book is the announcement of a major talent, another younger poet for whom inherited forms—rhymes, formal meters—are compelling, offering a sturdiness—or a steadiness—that might be a slowing and a bulwark against not only the firehose of language so many of us spend our days absorbing, but also a counterpoint to the blessèd idiom of our times, the ubiquitous free verse line, casual and talky. Millner can write that way, to be sure, but the necessity in this book is a more disciplined music. And what is music, if not the urgent groping attempt at making sense out of the chaos of the noise of our lives? In Millner’s you can hear echoes of Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton. And when the lines draw together in an especially taut and almost riddling catechism, you might hear Emily Dickinson, who of course presides in other ways. Speaking of her new lover, the voice of these poems writes:
I lived in fear she’d finally see
my fetish and discrepancy, and flee.
JESSE NATHAN: A book in rhyming couplets! Mostly. That form seems to me especially relational, one thing bound to another in shape and sound. And also maybe relentless, since a couplet has no interrupting music, no B rhymed-line. Would you say something about how the rhyming aspect of these poems emerged? Did it sometimes almost seem to generate the narrative? I’m curious about what rhyme has allowed or disallowed you. Especially interested in all the off-rhyme—bad rhyme? slant rhyme? incidental rhyme?—which is my favorite sort.
MAGGIE MILLNER: I think of rhyme as a way of organizing language according to likeness. Conversationally, we often use the word to mean “perfect rhyme,” or a pair of words that end with exactly the same sounds. But, of course, there are actually dozens of different kinds of rhyme: eye rhyme, for example, as in love and move, or amphisbaenic rhyme, which entails reversing the sounds of a word, as in gulls and slug. Most rhyming in English poetry—and in my book—is “imperfect”; two words might share a vowel sound but not a terminal consonant (assonant rhyme!) or might share all their consonants but no vowels (pararhyme!), and so on.
Like most American students these days, I didn’t receive much training in prosody; most of what I know about formal verse derives from my own reading. But I did learn that almost all English poetry was written according to fairly prescriptive rules until something like a century and a half ago, and that the following generations of poets largely experienced this shift to “free verse”—which aligned itself with liberal notions of progressivism and self-expression—as a welcome carte blanche: a democratization of the genre. Yet in my experience as a Trump-era MFA graduate in an increasingly professionalized and often presentist literary culture, it seemed that a different kind of poem—the free-verse lyric—had long since taken hold as poetry’s default form. By the end of graduate school, the conventions of this form (relative brevity, individual subjective narration, epiphanic imagery, etc.) had begun to feel, to me, actually more institutional and intellectually restrictive than, say, those of the heroic couplet.
This was also around the time I began living as a queer person—which is another way, I think, of organizing one’s life according to likeness. Until that point, I had spent most of my existence trying to excel at what was expected of me: writing competent free verse, dating cis men, preparing for a monogamous marriage. As I gave up the familiar trappings of my straight life, I found myself casting about for other structures by which to orient my thinking. Yet by then I was also painfully aware that any kind of imposed, seemingly compulsory structure might eventually arouse my resentment—might come to seem, however irrationally, like an infringement on my autonomy. What kind of life could I build that was both capacious and stable, bonded and unbounded?
I began writing in rhyme, I realize now, partly as a means of answering these questions. At the time, I found it immensely comforting to hew to a rule, and to attend not only to the meanings of words but also to their sounds and shapes: what I sometimes think of as their bodies. (A quote I love by Yoko Tawada: “My solution was not to find a solution, but rather to enter into the crevice between sound and language and make countless little notes.”) It was only after I had written several pages of rhyming couplets that I became aware of the form’s innate connection to romance and homoeroticism in particular: the very subjects that the poem explores. This made sense too; rhyme is at least in part about tapping into the unconscious—about foregrounding those hidden correspondences that already exist all around us. (In this way, it is not unlike some drugs, or certain kinds of sex.) So the rhyme, as it were, between form and subject was partly how I knew the poem was cohering.
The roominess of imperfect rhyme was another revelation. That I could rhyme “skewered” with “sword,” or “Loretta Lynn” with “redolent,” meant I never felt too queasily beholden to the dictates of the form. These rhymes were also the most satisfying ones to write—both because they allowed for a greater sense of surprise and because they enacted something true, perhaps, about the imperfectness of any pairing. The mind in love is a dialectical thing, pitching always between liberation and constraint, sameness and otherness, safety and fear. So is the mind of the rhymer, I think. I’m reminded of this great line Emerson wrote in his notebook in 1839: “I wish to write such rhymes as shall not suggest a restraint, but contrariwise the wildest freedom.”