Rhyme, like love, is embarrassing. Ludicrous to think that the word you mean is one that happens to share a final sound with one you’ve just used. What sense does that make? What sense does it make, moreover, that any person, even one with whom you share a bed, should shape your life?
And yet sometimes, quite apart from anything you intend, that is how it goes. When it does—when, say, you find yourself in love with someone new—you might wonder not only who this other person is but who you are, who you have become, who you ever were. Such is the experience recounted (in rhyme!) by the poet Maggie Millner in her new book, “Couplets: A Love Story”:
All of these are rhyming couplets, but in the first two the rhyme is imperfect, slant. (Technically speaking, in English, for one line to rhyme with another, both the vowel sound in the final stressed syllable and anything that follows it must be identical.) In the third couplet, though, the rhyme clicks neatly into place, as though to announce the different person—no longer, evidently, writing her poems in “the prevailing style”—whom this poet has become.
Rhyme has gone out of style more than once. Perhaps its most conspicuous fall from grace, in the Anglophone tradition, came in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” where blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) seemed to dramatize the agony of open-endedness inaugurated by Adam and Eve’s very bad decision. The absence of rhyme in Milton’s poem confused enough readers that he was forced to append an explanatory note to its second edition, in which he claimed that “the jingling sound of like endings” was “but the Invention of a barbarous Age,” and that his aim was to liberate epic poetry “from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.”
But what if bondage is what you want? “Everyone had the same Ikea bed,” Millner writes. “She tied my wrists to hers, above my head.” What follows is the most erotically intense description of furniture assembly that I have ever read:
To think about what her lover must have done to put this bed together is to imagine what that same woman is about to do, with those same hands, on that very bed, to her. And by displacing her fantasy from the future of her own body onto the past of the object to which her body is bound, Millner makes plain just how mechanical and deliberate, how formal and forced—and yet real as anything—this pleasure will be. It’s a delicate game, whereby the gentle pressure of the lover’s hands prompts the recipient of that touch, whether bed or body, to exceed what one might have thought to be its limits.
But there’s more being assembled here than just a bed or an orgasm. Stand further back from the passage and you can see the poet herself laying out the parts she’s been given, finding the “hundred screws,” the “plastic pegs,” the words with which she’ll make those parts into a serviceable whole. As anyone who has assembled a piece of IKEA furniture knows, things rarely line up perfectly, and what you’re left with is something you can live with but also something that will never entirely conceal that you are the one who put it together. Rhyme is working that way here: we can sense the imperfection of rhymes such as “free” / “assembly” and “torqued” / “particleboard,” and the strained diction (the replacement of the American “lines” with the British “queues,” necessary to secure a perfect rhyme with “screws”). What Millner has built, after all, is not a bed but a poem, one that wants you to notice its own discomfort in its anachronistic, unfashionable form. And just as one is instructed, when assembling furniture, to put all the screws in place before tightening them, so too are these couplets loose enough that the torque of narrative can draw them into shape.
It works both ways: if rhyme is like love, then love is like rhyme. If couplets require making do with an imperfect fit, so do couples: