The Girl Who Talked to Paintings
(Glass Lyre Press, 2021)
Having attended and taught at a variety of educational programs in English, Italian, comparative literature, and creative writing over the years, Shannon K. Winston ties together these disparate experiences on her personal website by calling herself a lifelong learner. Like the catch-all self-description, Winston’s recent poetry collection The Girl Who Talked to Paintings has the feel of an exhibit in which each painting adheres to a common theme that brings all of the pieces together. Many of the poems in the collection speak to the experience of being defined by one’s beauty as an object, which is common to many women.
This experience would also belong to paintings and other art objects if they were alive and aware of their status. But would their experience be the same as that of the girl who speaks to them? Can paintings offer the girl an alternative experience of being an object defined by her beauty? If the experiences of paintings are preferable, then the problem for the woman-identifying speaker has less to do with being objectified than with the fact that she keeps being made into the same kind of object: a girl, valued for her youth and sexual desirability to men. About such an object, there are only so many stories. Museums and art-filled poetry collections such as Winston’s show that there are many beautiful objects and therefore many lives one might lead as an artwork. What if the problem with being a girl in a painting is not so much being a painting as being a girl with one of the limited lives girls tend to lead?
Winston has a talent for handling what feel like autobiographical events with a straightforwardness that, like in the work of Diane Seuss, is never self-sentimentalizing. This ability is especially on display in Winston’s sonnet crown entitled, “The Girl Who Talked to Paintings: For Katharine Millet, the original subject of John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose Painting.” In the second sonnet, the speaker details her failure to live up to the standards imposed on her:
I, too, was a first draft, a sketch, half-baked.
A girl with angled teeth and a set 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. . . .
In the first part of the poem, the speaker appraises herself based on her appearance and how much she is valued by boys. The parents’ fight suggests that being desired is not only a prerequisite for being a proper girl, but for being named and considered human. This is gloriously confirmed with the speaker’s entrance into the poem as “preemie me” whose life is beepingly prolonged by the long “e” assonance of “sweet,” “keep, “preemie,” and “me.”
In the last two sonnets of the crown, the words of Sargent’s girls and the speaker spill over the fourteen lines of the sonnet. This quotation begins at line 14 of sonnet 6:
Do they trace their own shadows on a wall?
Like me, do they whisper: No,
that’s not me
It is as if the girls are stepping outside of the frame of the painting, rejecting the limitations of the form and also potentially of their gender or heteronormativity.
Perhaps due to the familiarity of thinking of women as stuck in the frame of femininity, I found myself particularly drawn to the poems that use animals to think through the ethics of transforming living subjects into art. One such poem that I could not look away from is “The Stories We Tell: Fox in a Block of Ice”:
but I find it beautiful—
the way its paws lift
slightly as if still
clawing the air.
Its yellow fur
pressed against ice
its body like
a magnifying glass…
I lean in closer
as if looking for
a story I can learn from—
one about cold
eyes that never shut.
The speaker is frozen by the visual appearance of the fox in its arrested motion and prevented from experiencing it as a real animal. Just as the fox’s beauty prevents the speaker from engaging with it as a real animal with whom she might sympathize, looking to the fox for a story similarly objectifies it. And yet, I too want to hear another story about “cold / temperatures, difficult crossings, / eyes that never shut.” A likewise remarkable poem about an animal who has become a work of art is “Upon Viewing Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, .” When it comes to an animal, it is perhaps easier to entertain the idea that the transformation of a living creature into a work of art, even if this transformation necessitates the animal’s death, is worth it.
Some poems capture the common experience of being valued for one’s beauty and confined to a social role as if one were a woman in a painting. Other poems linger on details and objects from the speaker’s own life that transfix her as the details in paintings do. In Winston’s poems, I found that a small detail will often draw the eye, distracting from the larger work in a way that reminded me of engaging with a painting. For instance, in “Collateral,” I was caught by the line, “At dusk, headlines glint like ellipses” and the expressive glinting of the short “i” assonance. Sometimes, an entire poem would have such a transfixing effect, as on the next page, the short poem “Marbles III”:
like the light
earth to sky.
Me, this moment, this morning:
all threaded together
as if it were that easy—
This poem directs attention to the very small threading of strands in a marble, and then telescopes outward to the marble that is the earth within the atmosphere. My attention remains stitched to the red-orange thread of the morning that sutures these images together, and also the speaker.
The end of the collection foregrounds the psychological benefits of becoming transfixed by beautiful objects. In “Notes from the Pantry, 1990,” appealing objects such as “Water chestnuts, purple ribbon, flower seeds” fix the mind and replace the speaker’s awareness of the painful events that occur in her life. In “Stories,” the speaker arranges not objects she finds, but those she makes. This enables her to replace herself by an object that is distinct from a human being—“a box of basil and cardamom”:
maybe there’s more to the story maybe that’s all there is to it
a woman, a baby, a river a woman, snapdragons, a dreamer
arrange the details so they matter arrange the details willy-nilly
mud beneath her feet plum carpet under her toes
did she lean in to whisper: did she lean in to whisper:
I dreamed there was no baby I dreamed I was sent downriver
just a box of basil and cardamom in a basket with a blanket.
The juxtaposed columns each present a distinct story, but the formatting invites us to read across the page and consider how each line talks to the one to the right of it. The juxtaposition of the columns also enables the lines spoken by the “I” to attach not to “the woman” in each of the two stories but to the speaker of the poem. This leaves open the possibility that the speaker is not a woman or a baby, but a box of basil and cardamom. A virtue of paintings is that they can offer a break from the consciousness of being a woman or a person or an animal. A virtue of poems is that they can enable one to speak as, and in that way to be, something else.
The Girl Who Talked to Paintings reflects much about the burden of feminine embodiment. Winston seeks in works of art alternatives to that embodiment. On the one hand, a woman can engage with work that is about something other than being a woman. Instead of being a woman who is looked at, she can be a person who looks at something that is not like herself: a fox or a shark or a marble. Or, she can make a new kind of self to speak as and be.