This selection, chosen by guest editor Amber Alexander, is from The Girl Who Talked to Paintings by Shannon K. Winston, released by Glass Lyre Press in 2021.
The Girl Who Talked to Paintings
For Katharine Millet, the original subject of
John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
1. She’s long gone, but I always look for her: the girl Sargent buried in paint. Like dirt, each brush stroke covered her dark, knotted hair. Greens blotted out the patterns in her skirt. Her asymmetrical smile and fire eyes: he erased those too. And the eczema, her knocked knees. Sargent wanted fireflies, lanterns, a garden with a soft aura. How her chest buckled under the pastels. How her body was heavy with lilies, roses, and carnations. Be a bluebell, be a good girl. Smile. Be sure to say please. Katharine, Catherine, or was it Kate? I, too, was a first draft, a sketch, half-baked. 2. I, too, was a first draft, a sketch, half-baked. A girl with angled teeth and a wet lisp: all of my life I’ve felt like a mistake. The girl in school no one wanted to kiss. My parents fought and fought about my name, as if unsure they wanted me at all. They only agreed on my middle name: Katherine with a “K.” What a sweet doll— words no one ever said. Tubes and wires keeping preemie me alive. Robot girl, here’s a lantern. A matchstick. Light a fire. I smiled. My grandmother gave me her pearls. I said thank you. When they chipped: I’m sorry. And this is only part of the story. 3. And this is only part of the story. Stroke by stroke, Sargent painted two sisters in Katharine’s place: Polly and Dolly. Petal-smooth skin, ruffled dresses, flowers waiting to be plucked as one might a rose. Give them lanterns. These props propped up by props. Turn their heads just so. Yes, girls, keep this pose. The way, in college, I got all made up for boys I’d never love. Foundation, rouge, lipstick: each day I picked a different way to transform myself. I wore rings and huge hoop earrings. Make me better. Make me good. Be good. The soundtrack of my childhood. 4. Be good. The soundtrack of my childhood: Be better. Would my father love me then? What had I done wrong? Said? Tell me, what had . . . ? I scanned each day for my mistakes: five, ten, twenty, thirty times. Something I had said made my father scream. Curled on the floor, I pulled at the strings of my old bedspread. Be good. I was his curious daughter who dared to ask about his new “best friend,” about flowers, his wedding, his new wife. Who said, But I thought Mom was your best friend? And how much did he spend on his new life? My nickname in school: nosy rosy. Girl, be quiet. Sit pretty with your fake pearls. 5. I sat so quietly in my fake pearls— when my father left, when my mother cried. When I burned myself with a hair curler. When I crashed my first bike trying to fly, and blood trickled between my legs. She’s lost her womanhood, my aunt cried on the phone. For days, I sat in a warm bath. At last, I went back to school and then everyone asked: What happened to you? I got quiet. A decade later, in a swimsuit store in Nice a clerk said that I wasn’t quite right. I had such a flat chest. A doctor. You must see one soon. In the fitting room: gold, pink, and black suits. Each one a costume. 6. Yes, Sargent’s girls, too, wear costumes. Each one in a dress (nightgown?) to match the lilies. The white ruffles itched their skin, the lanterns’ glow chafed their hands. Their legs cramped. How early they learned beauty’s stringent cost of entry. Or maybe not. Maybe the saleswomen flocked to them with rose perfume and bracelets and Mary Janes. Try x, y, and z. Then model for us. What sweet girls, dolls. Yes, tilt your heads just so. Maybe they soaked it up. But what do they do when no one’s around? Do they drop their dolls and chip china cups? What would they say if the painting had sound? Do they trace their own shadows on a wall? Like me, do they whisper: No, that’s not me at all? 7. No, that’s not her. No. Once, I got so close to Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, I saw only globs of paint. I froze before sticky reds. A security guard in the Tate Museum shooed me back. Not before I soaked in the thick yellows, and swirly greens. Not before I could ask: You in there? Katharine, Catherine, or Kate? Not before I saw a gooey white dot, a few dried cracks, and a rash upward brush stroke. Did you slip through the uneven spots? Up close, everything sags or turns to mush or becomes something else entirely. The way pruning and taming stand in for love. The way love is confused with beauty. The way Sargent is and is not my father.
Shannon K. Winston’s book, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings (Glass Lyre Press), was published in 2021. Her individual poems have appeared in Bracken, Cider Press Review, On the Seawall, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and lives in Bloomington, IN.
Amber Alexander, who publishes creative work as e. holloway, is a poet based in Ohio. They currently work in higher education and as an Assistant Editor for Best Of The Net within Sundress Publications. Alexander is a former Editorial Intern for Sundress Publications, former Editorial Board Member for Cornfield Review, and was a Sundress Academy for The Arts Writing Resident in 2023. Their work has been published by Cornfield Review and earned multiple awards during undergrad at The Ohio State University.