The Second First Love: On Maggie Millner’s “Couplets”

By Ana Cecilia AlvarezFebruary 7, 2023

The Second First Love: On Maggie Millner’s “Couplets”

Couplets: A Love Story by Maggie Millner

ADOLESCENCE, THAT alchemical torment, is a time few of us wish to return to. We remember too well that maturity comes at a cost. And yet, stories of baptisms by fire are common and commonly loved. These coming-of-age tales have the narrative neatness of a hero’s journey — departure, risk, trial, disillusioned growth, humbled return. And who doesn’t savor a bittersweet mouthful of wisdom, hard-earned?

But what of coming of age after coming out? Becoming queer is a passage rarely aligned with the timetables of development. “The second adolescence — like the second first love,” writes poet Maggie Millner, “is a time we have few legends of.” What kind of self-knowledge is wrought from this rarely memorialized transformation? And at what cost?

Millner explores this question in Couplets: A Love Story, an autobiographical novel told in verse that follows the illusions and disillusions of the narrator’s “second first love,” this time with another woman. Like any love story, Couplets positions this deep affection, or affliction, as the node around which all other experience, for a time, is oriented. Political and poetic considerations of storytelling — the pitfalls of narrativizing one’s own life and the lives of others — infuse this absorbing tale of falling out and in and out of love.

So, into the tunnel of love we go. With Millner’s well-attuned sense of metaphor, we know we are in good hands. Her verse is neat and supple. She describes the experience of separation as being like “a woman in a silk bolero stabbing with a dagger a wall of colorless jelly,” while forsaken love evokes “the blank face of a factory cow — a face, so soft and innocent and gaunt, / you’d have to be a monster not to want.” Orgasm leaves one “a soft vacuity. A sort of net.” And the choice to heed one’s desire is like pressing “the cobalt button that says BUY — / the long human machine begun, the hands that fly // among the storeroom shelves, the possible / conceding, choice by choice, to the immutable …” In the book’s most masterful poem, Millner turns the assembly of an IKEA bed into an arousing metaphor for bondage. Reading Millner’s poetry is as satisfying as submitting to a lover’s touch: “To yield. To feel the snugness of the fit. / To turn the lock. To hear the little click.”

Couplets is, yes, written in couplets, intermingled with sections of prose poetry. While couplets might recall the heroic verses of Geoffrey Chaucer or Alexander Pope, the word couplet in French can also mean a piece that is part of a hinge, a joint — a joining of two. Given this choice, I wondered if Millner’s poems would study the form of the couple, that standard that often defines love. And while Couplets does concern itself with romantic pairs (or pairs of romantic pairs), Millner has her eye not so much on the couple form per se, submitting to or resisting its allure, but on queerness as a form one inhabits. How does one form oneself as queer? Of course, this assumes that one’s “self” takes on a form at all. Millner questions this assumption in the first lines of Couplets: “I became myself. / I became myself. // No, I always was myself. / There’s no such person as myself.”

This gentle refusal of subjectivity is etched into the book’s own form: something of a novel, something of a collection of poems, and something of a memoir. The desire to write in the first-person is scrutinized, then finally submitted to — but not without reservations. For one thing, narrowing experience to the focus of a microscopic “I” risks an incomplete or insincere testament. Early in Couplets, the narrator quotes Natalia Ginzburg’s disavowal of memoir to instruct the reader on how to read into, or not read into, this work: “Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.”

One might sense here some defensiveness about being held to account. Is there, after all, any narrative more viciously refereed than that of a breakup? “There are many ways, of course, / of telling” the end of a relationship, the narrator concedes. “But each account obscures // some other version equally true.” Any telling necessarily constructs a false impression of life, especially when it comes to writing about falling in love, the most blinding and disorganizing of experiences:

Similarly, writing about coming out, like writing about love, can fall prey to triumphalism or reductive fatalism — I had no choice. But Millner is tapping into something more subtle here. While there is an air of destiny to the narrator’s first queer relationship, Couplets is suffused with the terrifying implications of creative will. You can shape your life — either through language or through love. “Once in a while,” the narrator says, “there would flash before you an image of yourself from the outside — towards whom, for the briefest moment, you’d be able to feel something like indifference. Just a person. Just a pronoun. Just the form you saw the world through, / soft and warm and waiting to be used by you.” If subjectivity, the “I,” can be inhabited, then it can also be created.

Queerness is, then, just one answer to the “formal concern” of how to live: “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.” Here, Millner reminded me of the late trans activist Lou Sullivan, who desired to be “one of those people […] that has their own interpretation of happiness.” Millner continues: “[I]sn’t love itself a type // of rhyme? And don’t gender and genre share one root?” They do — the root gene- means “to give birth” or “to form.” To engender oneself. Or, in the words of French novelist Constance Debré: “[H]omosexuality isn’t about who [you’re] fucking, it’s about who [you] become.”

Becoming yourself, as adolescence teaches us, comes with a cost. For Millner’s narrator, stepping “from the script” and into her desire releases a “reckoning” that she wishes “on no one and everyone.” Yes, there is wreckage, disappointment, folly, heartbreak. But there is also the priceless conviction of knowing what you are capable of, of recognizing that you are freer than you think: “For freedom, I have learned, I’d barter // virtue every time. For any fierce, untrammeled feeling, / now I know I’d give up almost anything.”


Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer and educator from Mexico City.

LARB Contributor

Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer and educator from Mexico City.


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