ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET’S 1974 film Successive Slidings of Pleasure starts with the protagonist tying her nude female lover to the bed frame to paint flowers over her nipples. The next we see of this lover, she is dead, stabbed in the breast with scissors. While Successive Slidings of Pleasure is perhaps, as seventies art films go, not that grotesquely misogynistic, Robbe-Grillet inadvertently reveals his ignorance about lesbianism. The two lovers engage only in feather-light caresses, and their affair ends in murder because of course it does—there is too much passion and hysteria at play for it to just peter out. In Maggie Millner’s Couplets, the narrator’s boyfriend expresses as much when she reveals she’ll be leaving him for another woman: “She’ll make you suffer in the end, he said— / not meanly, but as if reporting something true / about women in love and what they do.”
Couplets is an autobio-fictional-experimental novel-in-verse. The bulk of it is made up of rhyming couplets detailing Millner’s decision to leave her long-term boyfriend for a woman. Having always presumed herself straight, she meets the new object of her affection through a friend and, after a conversation about Middlemarch, is smitten. She jumps headlong into a lesbian relationship, ending things with her partner, although her new lover, more “bohemian” than she, maintains polyamorous relations with another woman. At first, she assures herself that the abrupt change in lifestyle is tolerable, but it soon proves to be more than she can handle. Her newness to queer culture and tendency toward monogamy stokes a sense of inferiority. She writes, “I thought she thought my life was trivial / since she was queer and edited periodicals.”
In a way, Millner’s experience stepping suddenly into the life of a queer woman shows ignorance one could liken to Robbe-Grillet’s: the woman is the other, erotic and alluring, a symbol of sexual pleasure beyond previous comprehension: “This was why I liked to keep / two of her fingers in my body / while we slept. I longed to be her property.” The narrator’s girlfriend introduces her to strap-ons, degradation, and BDSM, but what Millner understands is that the crux of the sexual connection is emotional—the needing, the holding. Millner stays with this woman for far too long, considering the psychological toll it starts to take, but it isn’t for wanton desire. Even during their first physical encounter, there is a sense of mutual respect, understanding, tenderness. “[S]he asked you to come upstairs; you did,” the narrator writes to herself in second person, “to get into her bed; you did; to press yourself lengthwise against her; you did; to fall asleep like that; you did; to drink coffee with her when you woke; you did; to kiss her on the mouth; you did.” The profundity of the narrator’s feelings makes it all the more painful when said lover remains distant and flighty:
When I was with her, the physical
experience of my pleasure—the little
death—seemed to make the nauseous question
of whether or not I was in possession
of a clear and unified self
mostly irrelevant. Those days, I was something else:
a soft vacuity. A sort of net.
No guilt, no age. No epithet.
THE COUPLET, AS a form, was popularized by decorous eighteenth-century poets like Dryden and Pope. The close rhyme scheme can feel predictable or corny; Millner’s use of couplets to extract and extrapolate unwieldy, carnal, queer emotion read initially to me as inappropriately formal, narrow, or gimmicky. At the book’s beginning, I sighed to myself and underlined illogical rhymes (meeting with media, for instance, or didn’t with wasn’t), but the longer I read, the clearer Millner’s vast and intimate knowledge of her craft became. (Both she and her narrator teach poetry at Yale.) I forgot my nitpicking, taken in by her careful construction of lines and allusions to diverse writers from Virginia Woolf to Audre Lorde to Vivian Gornick. Though I preferred the freeform, second-person meditations that appear every few poems, Millner’s unique skill lies in her ability to produce such a methodical work from raw memories. She reflects metafictionally on this process of creation: “You no longer felt that experiences belonged to people in the first place; they were always the outcome of forces beyond the strictly personal, and only became art at the moment they were made available, if in an altered form, to someone new.”
The experience of love made available to us here is wracked with guilt and suffering, scenes in which “the world [is] tilting into Hell.” Is there some inkling of truth in the straight man’s fetishization of lesbian love, its darkness and violent passions? My own relationships with women have moved too fast, accelerated by an extreme insistence that we understand each other deeply. But this kind of passion isn’t only about gender. Millner seems to believe—and rightly so—that the passion in the relationship comes from these lovers’ understanding of one another but also from the circumstances surrounding them: the ending of the previous relationship, the fresh, frightening introduction of queer sexuality. In a fight between the two, the narrator blurts, “You’ve ruined my entire life,” and the phrase stays there, “linger[s] like a toxin / does before inhaled, admitted, turned infection.” But the girlfriend is not the ruiner; the narrator is culpable. And what has been ruined?
In spite of its dark moods, Couplets is affectionate toward the feeling of love itself. It addresses the fluidity of sexuality with intelligence and warmth, deeming the relationship a necessary, though doomed, intervention in the narrator’s life. Even while in pain, she muses:
. . . And when I was not unbelievably
sad, I was moved unbelievably
to hold inside me both my lovers
and to introduce them to each other
there, in the hollow just above the heart,
among the little folds where the voice starts.
Later, she remarks, “Love found me twice, at once. If it never / happens again I’ll still be luckier / than the moon.” The brief encounters with her ex-boyfriend, too, are told tenderly; recalling a moment when she camped with him under the stars, she writes, “If he’d asked me then I would have answered yes.” She doesn’t tell us just what she means here—marriage? commitment? staying, not leaving? Her open-ended yes is a testament to the feeling.
I read Couplets in one sitting, most impressed by Millner’s formal skill and ability to deconstruct past emotion in all its contradictions. These kept my interest more than the story itself, which, to someone more settled into queer culture, felt occasionally trite. The narrator’s hypocrisy grates, but Millner recognizes this in lines left unspoken to the girlfriend:
“I want the safety and solidity I used to know.” “I think I’d feel more free if more constrained.” “I wanted out, now I want in.”
“How dare you do to me the very thing I did to him.”
In Successive Slidings of Pleasure, the leading lady is questioned about her relationship to her slain lover. She replies, “Nora was a bitch.” It’s funny to hear something so obviously written by a man spill from a woman’s mouth. In Couplets, there is no misogynistic vitriol, no mystique, no fetish. There is only a relationship between two women, two people, a testament to bisexuality and a lamentation of it. And sure, the protagonist “suffer[s] in the end,” just like her boyfriend predicted—not because she loves a woman but because she loves. The book’s first two lines say all we have to know:
I became myself.
I became myself.