The Engine of Self-Knowledge: On Maggie Millner’s “Couplets”

Heather Treseler reviews Maggie Millner’s “Couplets: A Love Story.”

By Heather TreselerFebruary 7, 2023

The Engine of Self-Knowledge: On Maggie Millner’s “Couplets”

Couplets: A Love Story by Maggie Millner. FSG. 128 pages.

CONFESSION’S SYMBOLIC IMPORT was legible to me, even as a child. As a Catholic sacrament, it typically begins at the age of reason, or roughly between the ages of six and eight, and it is required before a young person (or a new convert) can fully participate in the church. An earnest six-year-old, I prepared for weeks, keeping track of my transgressions. But on the day of my confession, I learned that I would not have a confessional box with a privacy screen between me and the priest.

Instead, I had to speak face-to-face with a cadaverous-looking cleric in a dim room of the local convent. His demeanor was so grim that I forgot my sins on the spot, and I made them up, rattling off increasingly far-fetched wrongdoings punctuated with “I kicked my brother” and “I kicked my other brother” when I couldn’t think of anything else. If the priest was unnerved by a free-associative tour of my violent heart, he never let on.

Perhaps my aggressive fantasies fell under the category of “a truth you have to lie to tell,” in the memorable phrasing of poet Maggie Millner, whose debut collection, Couplets: A Love Story, queries the narratives with which we authenticate ourselves. Millner’s book, which follows the arc of two love affairs, also queers the confessional poem, using formal strictures to enable candor and to upend the hierarchies of priest-and-penitent, reader-and-poet.

Formality is a crucial, if overlooked, feature of the sacrament: without the architecture of the confessional box and its invitingly dark interior, it is difficult to speak of actual wrongs, regrets, or errant wishes. Yet, confession’s structured verbal ritual and theater of anonymity provide a conduit for candid expression: secrets that fulfill a self.

Millner’s Couplets animates this paradox, using constraints to stylize a story of a life imploding with sexual discovery and erotic hunger. In rhyming couplets that zigzag down the page like urban fire escapes and in prose poems that visually mimic trapdoors, she narrates her exit from common-law marriage and monogamy — conventions thought to domesticate desire, either alchemizing sexual attraction into lasting bonds or killing it altogether. She explores the anarchic energy of eros in utterly orderly poems that alternate between first and second person, couplets and prose.

The book opens with two inciting incidents — the moment at which the speaker asks her male partner of eight years if she can sleep with others, and a minor transgression in early adolescence, retrospectively read as a symptom:

The narrator describes a hairpin turn from heterosexual monogamy, a relationship of “four bathmats / over eight years,” into a queer relationship with another woman involving BDSM and, in its initial phase, polyamory. The math of two individuals in an exclusive relationship cedes to a complex equation involving several, each with its own expectations and schedule. Playing her own psychoanalyst, the poet finds a parallel to this upheaval in her teenage mischief. Then, as now, she found herself attracted to “the aphrodisiac / of misbehavior,” more loyal to eros than to social law.

Here the couplets’ rhymes are subtle enough to remain secondary in our attention, a clever acoustic background. Although some couplets, elsewhere in the book, fall flat or seem fatuous — a rhyme, for instance, between “the bagels” and “practicing your Kegels” — the pattern of echoes is generally pleasing. It enacts the narrator’s ache for reciprocity as she tests the thesis that we know ourselves best in sex and in story, that which heightens our sense of embodiment or, in the etymological sense of ecstasy (ékstasis), allows us to temporarily stand outside ourselves. In case that point has eluded us, she declares in a late poem: “[L]et me say that love / has been, above all things, the engine of // self-knowledge in my life — and even after everything / is still what makes the rest worth suffering.” These lines flirt with preciousness, but most of Millner’s poems carry their freight with skill.

In a poem staged in the new girlfriend’s Brooklyn bedroom, for example, the narrator juxtaposes poetic imagination with the dulling uniformity of global capitalism — but without sounding a note of a power ballad. This short poem is as hilarious as it is sexy and poignant as the narrator conflates BDSM with the construction of Ikea furniture:

The analogy between bed assembly and sex acts is enough to make John Donne’s flea blush. Perhaps modular Swedish furniture is to the millennial as the Volkswagen bus was to the enterprising hippie: a transitional object en route to the bourgeois project of adulthood.

Yet for Millner’s generation, more than for baby boomers or generation X, maturity is laden with scarcity and debt, ecological destruction and political disarray. There are existential reasons for keeping one’s overhead (and bed) portable. As Millner notes, now “the precariat // was almost everyone” and “[o]utside, entire species // were expiring. Fascism had come / back into vogue.” This atmosphere of choose-your-own-apocalypse intensifies the interiority of the love affair:

[…] Above the neck, you were one big happy treeline, tipsy
on the seasonal dramas of the leaves, the smell of snow ges-
tating just over the lip of the horizon. It all makes sense when
you’re alive, although you couldn’t explain it to anyone who
wasn’t: the books, the sour rain, your walking home all glad
and fucked and apple-eyed, so cold and red because of it, be-
cause of having skin. A street called Throop. A room called bed.

Millner’s use of the second-person draws the reader further into the experience. We are conscripted, in propria persona, as we confess and adjudicate, narrate and editorialize, occupying both sides of the confessional box, restaging a drama of conflicting desires and conflagrations of identity. Millner’s “you” bossily includes and seduces. And who among us has not been driven, by love, to the point of “apple-eyed” ecstasy or near-ruin?

While desire is, no doubt, this book’s throbbing taxi, Millner’s consistent modulation of tone and perspective safeguards the book from the claustrophobia of erotic quest. She offers a philosophy of sexuality as an expansive force: an organization of pleasure that refutes neoliberalism’s demand for incessant labor. Alongside the fray of worldly obligations, sexuality is still “a formal concern: / finding for one’s time on earth // a shape that feels more native than imposed — / a shape in which desire, having chosen // it, can multiply.” She credits Audre Lorde, among others, with identifying the erotic as a source of power, “the wellsprings of sensual, non-rational, spiritual knowledge that run against the logical systems dictating civic life.” Aside from personal relationships, literature, and art, there aren’t many locales for such knowledge where it can be audible above the steroidal clamor of capitalism.

The result is that we end up talking about essential things, or Kenneth Burke’s “equipment for living,” in absurd places — the post office line, the cereal aisle, the collegiate classroom. Millner’s narrator, a writing instructor, lists axioms she shares with students: “Evidence / must precede argument. Verbs are the heaviest // lifters. Change is constant and inexorable. / The Oxford comma isn’t really optional.” Communicative logic, stoicism, and punctuation are all in the mix when we try — in literature or life — “[t]o share a truth you have to lie to tell,” a truth based on the fiction that experiential knowledge is stable, transferrable, unerring.

Montaigne’s assertion that “I have not made my book more than my book has made me” seems true of the poet’s project in Couplets. She makes apparent the traffic between the textual and actual, working through a set of linked crises on the page, which serves as a space for inner work much like the idealized (or repudiated) confessional box. While Millner borrows from the artful boldness of contemporaries Garth Greenwell, Maggie Nelson, Frank Bidart, and Maureen N. McLane, the book also participates in a tradition of sexual and spiritual frankness that extends as far back as the lyric poem itself — back to Sappho and Catullus, those ancient poets who wrote of passions that threatened to rive their lives.

It’s hard not to think of the agile sparrows that convey Aphrodite’s chariot in Sappho’s first fragment, or the pet sparrow that Catullus accuses his girlfriend Lesbia of using as a sex toy, when, ominously, a dead sparrow nearly falls on the narrator in Couplets as one love affair ends and the next finds its beginning: “It didn’t die // on impact, but lay there, twitching / the black seed of its eye in my direction.”

The “black seed” of the sparrow’s eye — and love’s lawless “I” — germinates in this collection as Millner seeks communion with readers with whom she might share a privileged conversation, a confessional that does not aim at absolution but “proof of life […] in the aching.”


Heather Treseler’s Parturition (2020) won Ireland’s Munster Literature Centre’s international chapbook prize. Her poems appear in The Cincinnati ReviewHarvard ReviewAlaska Quarterly ReviewSouthern Humanities Review, and The Iowa Review, among other journals.

LARB Contributor

Heather Treseler is the author of Auguries & Divinations (2024), which received the May Sarton Prize, and Parturition (2020), which received the Munster Literature Centre’s international chapbook prize. Her poems appear in PN ReviewKenyon ReviewHarvard Review, The Iowa Review, and The American Scholar. Her essays appear in Boston Review, PN Review, and eight books about poetry. She is a professor of English at Worcester State University and a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!