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Poetry The Filth issue

Couplets

By Maggie Millner

Painting of a reclining woman with arm over her head
Max Beckmann, Frau im Bett (Woman in Bed), oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 31 1/2".

1.2

She found me in the winter at a bar,

one of those places in Bed-Stuy not far

 

from Clinton Hill — a platonic meeting

set up by a friend who worked in media

 

and thought we’d get along. I got there first and snatched

a booth and started reading Middlemarch,

 

a novel I’ve been halfway through for more

than half my life. When she strode through the door,

 

Oh shit, I love that book, I’ve read it fifteen

times, she said, and asked my favorite scene.

 

I looked down at page 108,

open on the table. Maybe when Lydgate

 

first meets Dorothea, and Eliot’s

talking about how the “stealthy convergence of human lots,”

 

when analyzed in retrospect,

shows a “slow preparation of effects 

 

from one life on another,” I replied. Totally,

she said. The conversation turned to poetry,

 

our few mutual friends: one’s Ph.D., one’s start-up,

one’s divorce. I was too skittish 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. Besides, I practically had a husband — 

a man as opposite to her as Casaubon

 

was opposite to Will. On the A train

home, I read that paragraph again,

 

then closed the book and marked the chapter,

telling myself that I’d resume it after.

 

 

 

1.3

I thought she thought my life was trivial

since she was queer and edited periodicals

 

and I was a poet who had never dated a woman.

Every night she’d attend some trendy function

 

with people dressed in Eckhaus and Givenchy

while I shambled off to walk-in shows at raunchy

 

bars, or raunchier bars that never put on

shows. Or anyway, that was my perception.

 

Now I know that hers were mostly networking

events — book launches and openings — their settings

 

often even spots where I’d have grabbed a drink

myself. Still, when I surveyed the fabric

 

of my life back then, its familiar openwork

of sex and teaching, kale and NPR,

 

and the boyfriend at the center I revered

but felt I had been failing many years,

 

I dreaded she’d dismiss me. (Though when I looked

at him — and at my friends — I thought, How bad could

 

my life really be with people like these in it?

Gentle, loyal, practical, considerate… )

 

The difference was, I knew my friends,

I knew my life, while hers remained

 

a vivid new reality that swirled

behind a scintillating door, a world

 

where people wore athleisure haute and seemed

to vape incessantly, the sticks lighting up green

 

or white like tiny pagers every time they’d pull.

I hated the air that came out of them, the smell

 

like cleaning solvent or an afterthought

of fruit, but found them mesmerizing, too. I’d zone out

 

and imagine that a tiny person lived inside each

cartridge, who would sprint to switch

 

the light bulb on and fan the fire

when she felt a drag. She must get so tired,

 

I would think. This elaborate e-cig reverie

was not so different from my theory

 

of her life — which, because unknown,

was also marvelous and false, complete invention.

 

It took months to really reach her through the cloud

of myth my adoration made. Until I could,

 

I lived in fear she’d finally see

my fetish and discrepancy, and flee.

 

 

1.6

You hadn’t intended to see her a second time. But when she invited you out for a drink one Friday night, you decided to go and see if perhaps your desire had waned, had taken care of itself, as strong feelings born of fantasy and instinct sometimes do when brought into the harsh light of lived causality. But it was the same thing all over again — immediately on seeing her, you felt flushed and exposed, as if you’d been caught crying. Your stomach considered for a moment revising the course of its metabolism. You sat at right angles on a banquette in the corner of the room, brushing knees, then hips, then shoulders. At last call, you were the only people there. Then she asked you to share a cab with her; you did; she asked you to walk her in; you did; she asked you to come upstairs; you did; 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; to kiss her with your tongue; you did; to let her touch you once, just to see if you were really as wet as you said you were; you did; 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.

 

 

2.4

She was also dating someone else,

they believed in alternative relationship models,

 

which meant she could keep seeing me

provided I agreed to polyamory

 

and didn’t ask for more than my allowance

of her time. Our dates she scheduled in advance;

 

the other girlfriend got most Fridays

and any night I stayed in grading essays,

 

but Tuesdays and Saturdays were mine.

It was equitable by design,

 

though also not exactly democratic. 

During those months there was a lot of panic,

 

moral and otherwise, concerning men

and domination, “open

 

borders,” what precisely was harassment.

About sex I had emphatic,

 

lucid, memorized opinions

crusted over a cesspit of dark ambivalence.

 

At parties I spoke less and less, skewered 

olives on my tiny cocktail sword.

 

Often, when I kissed my lover,

I could almost taste the other

 

girl: her close-cropped hair and longer, coltish legs,

her pit sweat and the apricot-ish dregs

 

of her perfume. Was I not

really a bohemian at all? I’d thought

 

I had a different heart, one with doors,

one that did not love perforce

 

toward the condition of possession.

But when she’d pull out of me and toss her harness in

 

a duffel bag with lubricants

and toiletries to carry to the other girlfriend’s 

 

house, I felt rush through my blood

a surge of insecurity and dread,

 

and I’d retch and clutch myself and weep.

This was why I liked to keep

 

two of her fingers in my body

while we slept. I longed to be her property.

 

I wanted her to smell me in her nail beds

all day long. One morning, as we said

 

goodbye, I told her that she owned me.

I wanted her to say it back, to preface it with only.

 

 

2.6

I kept making the same ludicrous wish

that the things I didn’t like might vanish

 

of their own accord. Envy. Pimples. Debt.

My stack of griefs. The internet,

 

whose central purpose seemed to be

to turn the best parts of humanity — 

 

our hungers for belonging, art, and sex — 

into surveillance logs and payouts for execs.

 

It was both invisible and everywhere

like the wealth gap or the ozone layer

 

and foiled any threat of our collectivizing

by rewarding only purchases and infighting.

 

Of course I had no plan to make it better.

And I knew my sneering hauteur

 

was its own repellent habit: an itchy frock

I wore to parties, where I made small talk

 

about book reviews and carbon capture

while down below the surface of our banter

 

I’d feel a sheet of rime steadily start

to form between me and my counterpart.

 

Since when is pleather vegan leather?

Since when is theory clearly better

 

intel than the news? I’d retreat to someone’s toilet

and despite myself, I’d hit

 

her up, desperate to be lifted from my body.

Come over, she would say. The literati

 

can’t give you what I can. And I’d comply.

And it would work. You can’t be lonely,

 

after all, if you’re not inside yourself.

You can’t be dwelling if you’re somewhere else.

 

 

2.7

I went on apps to meet people who weren’t

her or him. There’d be this quick hormonal current

 

when my finger skimming glass 

achieved the grayed-out screen that meant a match,

 

which then a queasy emptiness produced.

It was like spying in a closet an old coat you used

 

to wear, and finding it still flatters you and even has a dollar

in the pocket — but then you notice on the collar

 

a large brown stain like blood, and a tear in the lining

from that frenzied night in Nanjing

 

with his sister, and a dark mystical whisker

from the cat you owned together

 

on the cuff… And in your hand isn’t money

but a ticket stub from when you saw La grande

 

bellezza the week after you cosigned your first lease

in Monterey. So what had felt before like luck now seems

 

another ploy to show you what you’ve lost.

I’d go for drinks with people over whom I’d passed

 

a thumb in the affirmative, and sometimes 

it was even sort of nice: drinking turbid natural wines

 

while touching knees, or talking Adrian Piper

with an art student I’d soon learn was a biter

 

when we kissed. But beneath the conversation

I’d detect this faint reverberation

 

that, when I listened close, I understood 

to be her name. And if I tuned in harder, I would

 

often hear, below that pitch,

another, deeper throbbing, which was his.

 

From COUPLETS: A Love Story. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Maggie Millner. All rights reserved.
Maggie Millner is a poet who lives in Brooklyn. Couplets is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2023.