Maggie Millner’s Couplets feels both timely and self-assuredly out-of-place in the landscape of contemporary American poetry. The novel in verse was published in early February, each hardcover copy fitted with a bright red jacket with the title mirrored vertically along the cover––appearing once in pink and once in white––obnoxiously appropriate for the lovers’ holiday which passed a week after the book’s publication. If the book’s seeming festivity begins with the cover, it’s gone by the time we reach the epigraph, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnet XXX, “Love is not all.” Like Millay’s sonnet, Millner’s autobiographical novel, mostly written in “imperfect pairs” of rhyming and slant-rhyming couplets, deals both formally and thematically with the impossible task of rhyming “self” with “love” or “other” ––with squaring the jangly, bent-up inner resonances of the soul with the symbiotic harmony love asks us to sing or the echoes of the beloved’s inner-dark, which may only ever be vanishingly perceptible.
While reading Couplets, I kept recalling the untitled sonnet on page 108 of Diane Seuss’ frank: sonnets, a poem that figures love as a thing that flies, only briefly, against the sky of self: “if it were in the sky, / it would be the wing of some dumb flying machine / blushed for a moment like a tangerine but remember / the sky’s largesse and emptiness, and larger still, the self.” After breaking up with her boyfriend of almost a decade and finding her image reflected back to her in the form of a woman, a strange mirror, who becomes and then ceases to be her lover, the narrator of Couplets asks herself and us what it might mean to wade into this largesse––even and especially if the ostensible freedom of singledom is less preferable to the kind of freedom enjoyed within the constraints of partnership. In the “Coda” that rounds out the novel, our narrator walks beside a lake in a New York City park, unaccompanied by either ex-lover, unattended by their eyes or mirrors. “Dip your foot in / if you like,” she says to herself, “Why not. No one is looking.