Early in Maggie Millner’s Couplets, a book-length narrative poem that might also be called (or so its author suggests) True Life: Turning Twenty-Eight in Brooklyn, a young woman meets up with another young woman at a bar. The first woman is reading Middlemarch. Like George Eliot’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, she is passionate and restless, qualities that don’t always serve her desire to be a good person. She is also in a relationship with a man who cuts a familiar figure: nice, but boring. Over drinks with the second woman, she silently compares her boyfriend to Mr. Casaubon, Dorothea’s sexless windbag of a husband, and her date to Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s dashing cousin with whom Dorothea falls helplessly in love. “I was too skittish,” Millner writes,
and caught up
in my charade to feel, charging the space
between us like a ray, the knowing gaze
of Destiny, which Eliot would say stood by
sarcastic with our dramatis personae
folded in her hand.
Barely hesitating, the protagonist of Millner’s poem is soon drawn into the other woman’s apartment. Most of Couplets is written (as you might have guessed) in couplets, but it includes blocks of prose whose last two sentences fall, like the couplets themselves, into half or identical rhymes that are sometimes uneasy, sometimes rapturous. “She asked you,” one goes,
to unclasp your bra; you did; to rub yourself against her till you came; you did; to read her the erotic poem you loved; you did; to remove your pants; you did; to let her taste you; you did; to come again, inside her mouth; you did; to penetrate her gingerly; you did; to get out of bed at last; you did; to go get pizza down the street; you did; to eat it on the sidewalk in the snow; you did; to go back home with her; you did; to sleep there one more night; you did;
to stay until the sun came up; you did.
Readers of Middlemarch have long objected to Will Ladislaw, a gifted but aimless intellectual with a well-developed “sense of the ludicrous.” “Ladislaw…seems,” one observed in 1873, “to be a favorite” with Eliot, but charm alone shouldn’t earn the sublime and sensitive Dorothea, for whose “lofty yearnings” Will presents a “meagre consolation.” Henry James put it even more bluntly: Ladislaw “has not the concentrated fervor essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine.” “He is,” James sighed, “the one figure which a masculine intellect of the same power as George Eliot’s would not have conceived with the same complacency; he is, in short, roughly speaking, a woman’s man.”
Couplets is a queer book about queer love, and Millner has no fixed ideas about who ought to want what or whom and why. She makes explicit what James leaves tacit or may not even recognize: her narrator, like Dorothea, needs to get fucked, and great sex is a lot more than a meager consolation for the difficulties of adult life. With his “pure enjoyment of comicality” undiluted by any “sneering and self-exaltation,” Will is all but advertised as an excellent lover, playful and empathetic where Casaubon is prohibitive and mean. The woman who bookends orgasms with poetry and pizza likewise offers relief from a heterosexual schedule of “kale and NPR,” and if she is not cruel she can still ply cruelty’s more gracious arts:
Everyone had the same Ikea bed.
She tied my wrists to hers, above my head
(She liked what she called clean lines, I would learn;
her major had been architecture.)
Sometimes when I lay there, waiting, bound or free,
I’d envision its assembly:
the tiny standard-issue wrench that torqued
the socket of the bolt, drawing the particleboard
flush against the rails. The hundred screws.
The greasy crossbar with its queues
of stapled slats. The wooden dowels,
Which had seemed too large to fit their holes,
that gently she’d forced in. The plastic pegs.
The vinyl footboard, trussed between the legs.
There are seven couplets here, or fourteen lines, making this a Clare sonnet, after the English Romantic poet John Clare. Clare’s own sonnets use heroic couplets with a tight, almost punishingly regular iambic pentameter. His couplets are usually closed, so that each line seems to present a complete thought. Millner favors open over closed couplets, running each line into the next so that if you imposed a colloquial rhythm over the undertow of her prosody, Couplets could almost sound like someone talking. Both poets get a kick out of lacing orthodox forms with socially specific vernaculars. For Clare it’s a regional peasant dialect (“proggle” for poke, “crumpt” for crunched, “mare blobs” for marigolds), for Millner the glossary of underpaid adjuncts and editors like her and her girlfriend: “Ikea,” “her major,” “particleboard.”
Millner’s Clare sonnet is a sex scene doubling as an ars poetica. She’s not the first to associate the pleasures of literary convention with those of sadomasochism, but she may be the first to use mass-produced furniture as an objective correlative for the appetite to subdue both words and her personal autonomy, “to feel the snugness of the fit./To turn the lock. To hear the little click.” When it succeeds, the rote labor of putting one thing into another—a dowel into a hole, a word into a line—can furnish a space of imperfect beauty (squeaky slats, slant rhymes) and improvised joy. Poetry has its routines and so does love; even cheating, which is the background condition of this interlude, is formulaic. Such rituals and norms, habits and cycles can be oppressive or dull, but they are also necessary for building the skills that allow happiness, in sex or writing, to persist over time. Whoever masters these, Millner suggests, is worth a hundred screws and then a hundred more.
Ever since John Milton decided to equate rhyme with bondage in his introductory note to Paradise Lost, the couplet—an especially constrictive rhymed form—has had a reactionary reputation. The Augustans, Pope first among them, liked in the couplet what Milton abhorred, namely its capacity to set things to order, to balance opposing energies and reduce them to a mixed but settled unity. For Pope couplets could resolve in language the contradictions, both personal and collective, that threaten to tear us apart. Reason and passion, he observed, “answer one great aim,” so “true self-love and social are the same.” When William Hazlitt called Pope the poet “of polished life,” he meant that Pope buffed a class-stratified society until it was squeaky clean, smoothing its ruptures with the “regular sing-song” of perfectly turned verse.
It’s hard to argue with the idea that there’s something tyrannical about couplets. They are very neat, the hospital corners of English poetry. Millner’s volatile meter and enjambed lines draw attention to the discipline behind them, a reminder that even the most riotous experiments in love and art almost never escape the pressures of tradition. No sooner does the protagonist of Couplets leave monogamy’s narrow room for the “big happy treeline” of an open relationship than she buckles under the agonizing demands polyamory places on the ego, beginning to long once more for the polished life of a closed coupling. Her new girlfriend has another girlfriend who has another girlfriend, and while the arrangement is supposed to be “equitable…though also not exactly democratic,” it drives the narrator up the wall. She pulls out her hair, claws her arms, and insists that she’d “feel more free if more constrained.” Eventually she gets her wish: “She asked if we/might date, from there on out, exclusively.”
There are only so many ways to inhabit the couple form. What seemed airless and burdensome in one relationship quickly becomes the desideratum of another, and it is this specific compulsion to repeat that Millner’s couplets movingly execute. The extended bit about Middlemarch makes plain this book’s wish to be read like a nineteenth-century novel—a story in which love, “above all things,” serves as what Millner calls “the engine of/self-knowledge.” This is certainly what love does for Dorothea Brooke, as for Jane Eyre, Bathsheba Everdene, Catherine Linton, and Elizabeth Bennet before them. But the Victorian fiction Couplets most closely resembles is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a long narrative poem in blank verse. Both are narrated by women who are also poets, and both are about coming to realize that, through love, we are (in Barrett Browning’s words) “unmade from [the] common” without necessarily being “completed to [the] uncommon.” Love complicates us exactly the same way it complicates everyone else. That’s not a defect, but neither is it an advantage.
Aurora Leigh ends the way many novels of its time do, with its heroine winding up with a man she once rejected but to whom she’s circled back, Odysseus-like. This is not the way of Couplets. Instead we get the cautious but ultimately triumphant realization of “I am my own husband,” a sly wink at the opening sentence of the last chapter of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” Here there is no husband, no wife, no partner, no other, only a woman who declares that she is “bonded/to myself by my authority alone./No one beside me. No one on the phone.” The poem concludes, tellingly, with a couplet that is both open and notched with a deliberately unsatisfying slant rhyme (“foot in/…looking”), as if Millner really were saying good-bye to all that: fixed form, euphony, the frenzied and unthinking urge to promise someone else your life.
“In order to write about the tenderness of love,” Vladimir Mayakovsky advised in his 1926 essay How Are Verses Made?, “take the bus No. 7 from the Lubyansky Square to Nogin Square. The appalling jolting will serve to throw into relief for you, better than anything else, the charm of a life transformed.” The reader of Kay Gabriel’s A Queen in Bucks County often confronts the tenderness of love as well as the menacing shadow of its absence. She also finds herself on a lot of public transportation, on the move between Brooklyn, Queens, and various towns in “a sullen Jersey.” “Dear Kay,” the book begins, “I’m writing you perpetually in transit, shuffling somewhere, en plein air, a lollipop on SEPTA.”
This “I” is a character named Turner, “a persona in a bag” who is and is not the book’s author, and whose days are structured by the relentless navigation of promise and threat. Sometimes Turner gets lucky, sleeping on the ride home if the conductor doesn’t ask for a ticket. Yet vigilance is always required: “A couple days ago en route to the Sterling St. 2/5 some teens said faggot very loud. You know what I mean when I say they’re not wrong,” Turner adds, “a white queer in Flatbush is a walking icon of rent going up.”
Like Couplets, A Queen in Bucks County is a narrative poem that flips between prose sequences and lyric interludes, though it balances them differently. Most of the book is epistolary, composed as a series of letters, in prose, to Turner’s friends Stephen, Connie, Niel, Jo, and (more trickily) Kay. These alternate and intermingle with verse at once comic, tender, and rueful:
Wouldn’t you know, I slept it off.
Caught the bus in time
to encounter a wash of junk,
a derelict, a diva shrine.
Wasn’t this what I was looking for?
Aggro make-out sesh in a setting
ripe for genre fiction,
a leading man, an audience on glue
Everything even the photographer
in neon and vinyl
No rain on a Sunday and the buses free
I am corrupt and going finally
to bed in an unprecedented way
as if I said I love you!
Gabriel does not so much cite other poets as quietly tune into and out of their distinctive tones and prosodic textures. It’s allusion as flirtation, taking someone else’s words and manner and testing them in your own mouth, to see how you like them. Like flirting, mimicry always lies close to ridicule, but when Gabriel decides, as she does here, to sound like Frank O’Hara, the impersonation is generous and affectionate. The first line of the poem above recalls O’Hara’s “Essay on Style” (1961), which begins:
Someone else’s Leica sitting on the table
the black kitchen table I am painting
the floor yellow, Bill is painting it
wouldn’t you know my mother would call
Gabriel borrows O’Hara’s “wouldn’t you know” and, via the metonym of “the photographer,” his Leica. Meanwhile “I love you” is one of O’Hara’s favorite phrases. (Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a poet who uses it as often or as well.) It appears memorably, not once but twice in succession, in his great poem “Mayakovsky,” whose “thick” liquids and sad rain, maudlin questions (“Mother, mother/who am I?”), and achingly goofy exclamation points Gabriel draws into her own lines. And then there is her final tercet, in which archness and vulnerability form a carapace around the poet, closing her (as O’Hara puts it) like a fist.
Similar moments are threaded throughout Bucks County. In Gabriel’s “All I’ve got is men, poems, work, rent, disgust and transit” there is a reply to Eileen Myles saying, in Chelsea Girls, “If I wasn’t either” drunk or in love, “I simply needed my rent, cigarettes, and coffee, simple enough. I really liked the life of the poet.” A portion of the book is written as a series of prompts—“1. What teenaged mistake do you intend to repeat?”; “3. Tell me an origin story involving first written then visual pornography”—that might recall the questionnaire Jack Spicer developed as part of his 1957 workshop called “Poetry as Magic,” or maybe Bhanu Kapil’s 2001 collection The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, in which the reader is asked, “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?” and “What are the consequences of silence?”
This is all to say that Bucks County places Gabriel firmly within a late-modernist genealogy of queer poets and writers. (There are some postmodern touches too. “I am not Kay Gabriel,” Turner insists in one letter, “but I am the stinker holding the gun.”) And yet if her thickly erotic prose paragraphs owe something to, say, Robert Glück, they also have the raunchy vividness and buoyancy of an ancient Greek epigram:
I want to kiss before hyperbole—that’s more than a feeling. In June I backed my boyfriend into a rail yard, piled his cock out of his jeans and jerked him off between the freight cars, on a bed of shale. I guess I don’t really know from rocks, or decency…. We tightened in on each other, flush in case a window we couldn’t see cut through the canopy behind us. Did I mention the L train going by, or the cemetery behind it? We stopped close enough to see the graveside decorations, pink and plastic, and then his cock stood over the hem of his clothes plump and upright like a water tower…. Through an eyes-closed kiss I felt his blood pulse through the head of his cock, as if, had he climaxed right then, that’s the fluid that would’ve slathered us both.
The passage begins by undercutting erudition and sentiment (“I want to kiss before hyperbole”) with a pop-culture reference to the song “More Than a Feeling,” a staple of classic-rock radio by the 1970s arena band Boston and a perfect exemplum of straight American taste. This drollery then tilts, unexpectedly, into a romantic urban pastoral, with beds of shale instead of green rolling grass. It’s a sweet, sexy scene, but it’s also laced with the real fear of being noticed. There’s always the possibility that someone leaning out that undetected window might decide to meet this couple, and this coupling, with violence. Like the graveyard in the background and the fantasy of an ejaculation made of blood, that threat grips Gabriel’s prose with an underlying anxiety, contracting around it as the lovers are “tightened in on each other.” To kiss with closed eyes in an inhospitable world is always a risk, one it is hard to take and harder still to live without.
In a recent essay in The Yale Review, Gabriel writes pointedly of the ways that realist novels about trans people “use narrative form to secure and enforce expectations about the limited scope and trajectory of trans lives.” Because realism favors linear models of plot and character—people start out single and end up married, become older and wiser, settle down, grow up, and generally acclimate themselves to what once seemed insupportable—it also tends to make covert moral claims about what kinds of lives are good and what kinds of people deserve to live them. To the extent that “trans realism” treats “being trans as a matter of solitary events endured alone rather than a form of social life that a lot of people experience and enjoy together,” it produces stories of isolation and abjection rather than ordinary, everyday intimacy and exuberance.
A predictable question, but one worth asking, is whether poetry might provide an alternative to this propulsive will toward closure. Millner seems to think so. In verse, she says, characters can “transform as many times/as time allows,” and besides, in poems “there are barely any characters.” Instead they might have speakers or speaking parts, personae, figures, voices, acoustic effects that exert the pressure of a personality. The gamble here is that the looser, less purpose-driven shape of the poem might limn adult sexuality as it really is—messy, unfinished, a work forever in progress—while also acknowledging that there really is nothing “outside” form, that relationships, like works of art, settle often very quickly into the patterns that make them legible and sustainable. “I broke up with lineation,” brags the compulsively lyrical Turner, but wait: “that’s a lie.”
O’Hara famously described the style of his poems (or, at least, of some of them) as “I do this I do that”: “It’s my lunch hour, so I go/for a walk among the hum-colored/cabs,” or “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday/three days after Bastille day, yes/it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine…” This deceptively modest mode, which packs a great deal of complexity and paradox into a very small frame, is also Gabriel’s. “Men buy me things,” she writes; “I return them for the cash.” Or elsewhere: “I’ll die with heaps of laundry/mildewed in crummy weather./In this poem I do it twice…” For her, dailiness and its rituals—work, sex, chores, commutes, naps, writing—expose the indignities of a life shared with slumlords and transphobes, but also the joys of constancy, or the faithful labor of keeping friendship, lust, one’s self, and one’s art alive.
Naming friends and correspondents in turn, Turner assures Kay that Stephen, Jo, Connie, and Niel—like “the bourgeois O’Hara” and “Nick Cage in Moonstruck”—“are not the opposite of a good time,”
no more than intimate addressees
no more than minor personality
no more than an impressive paunch
no more than months of back pay (credit)
no more than land and water
no more than sleepless want
“Not the opposite of a good time” is hardly utopia. Nonetheless, the phrase names a refuge of shared pleasure in straitened circumstances, points of contact that stretch a luminous net over the void.
“This thing,” Turner declares, “is multiform, contingent, ambivalent, and I call her my sex. Even if I make choices I still like everything.” Bucks County imagines desire as a constant, not a crisis, but it is a constant that is flexible and porous, with a poetics to match. Its formal omnivorousness makes it by turns friendly and rebarbative, breezy and firm, offering a solid reminder that the most heretical attitudes toward form often give the strongest evidence of what it can do. If form is a figure for the ways we are bound, always, to the demand to make sense to others, it is also a means by which we unravel, exultantly, from ourselves.
April 6, 2023
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