Two Poems from Shannon K. Winston

The Girl Who Talked to Paintings

For Katharine Millet, the original subject of John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose Painting, 1885-1886


Syllable by syllable,
my father’s words
bore into me.

Metal-edged, spiked,
they always lodged
in the most tender tissues—

curled on the floor
at the base of my bed,
I made myself small

as a seed. I pressed
my cheek against
the green carpet.

Like fingers,
the fibers
tickled my face.

Each stroke brushed
me gently
to sleep.

Leaves rustled
across the walls,
lilies unfurled

petals across
my sheets.
My curtains

rippled freshly cut
grass through
the room.

A girl appeared,
holding a Chinese
paper lantern over me.

At first, her profile
was nothing
but a sketch,

but then her gold
curls, her long
lashes thickened;

the lines around her
mouth, chin,
and eyes grew

more and more
Then, a second girl:

I muttered.
What are your names?

Silence. I tried again.
Where are we?
They looked at each other.

What do you do
when you’re sad?

At this they smiled,

took my hand. Come,
they coaxed,
Follow us.


Across an ocean
and a decade,

I shuffle through

moving hurriedly
from canvas to canvas.

Cameras flash as other
tourists brush past me.

On the wall behind them,
two girls in white nighties

stand in a garden,
gazing into paper lanterns—

my bedroom lights up
with carnations and fireflies.

Is it really them?
I lean into their names:

Dolly and Polly Barnard,
typed on the wall.

Do you remember me?
I whisper into Sargent’s

tableau, edging closer
to Carnation,

Lily, Lily, Rose.
Pastels and soft edges

the din behind me.

Ruffled dresses,
sweet grasses, a lily, a rose.

Souvenirs. My father’s
voice rising from downstairs.


Fireflies, moss, locusts. Lines crisscross, zigzag, dash forth anew.
This is what paintbrushes do: undo, redo, make do.
Under the open sky, Sargent began with Katharine, a woman who shares
my middle name—dark, curly hair, mottled skin, an awkward smile.

Jaw too pointy, eyes too fiery, he began the painting again—stroke after stroke
she receded, like so many women before her, erased by a man’s gestures.
Her nose burned with acrylic. She curled into the grass,

her tears thick with oil, her chest buckling
under the paint that had made the garden hers. Leaves rustled and a girl appeared,
holding a Chinese paper lantern
above her. Then, a second girl: O’ their golden hair, their white gowns!

Their lanterns softened Katharine’s sadness as yellows flirted with greens,
burgundies, and mauves in the evening. Carnation, Lily, Rose:

funny how we name girls after flowers, as if they might bloom every spring.
How each begins as a seed, planted, and pruned and trimmed and poked and
prodded to be sketched again. Stroke by stroke,

word by metal-edged word. This taming: the only way
my father knew to love.

Origin Story

I came half-made, a paper doll,
transparent under the hospital lights.

If you had held me up to the window,
you might have seen right through me.

This will be her heart, my mother
announced as if making it so—

these her lungs, these her shoulders.
One day, she will stand tall and brave.

But I felt only incompetence,
years later, in science class

as I scrutinized specimens
under a microscope.

My fingers fumbled over the dials,
left smudges on the glass:

a stamen, a bud, a filament
how carefully I pronounced

the words, fleshing them
out syllable by syllable

as if that might make them
whole at last.



Image: John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose