Kristen Hewitt: A Review of Shannon Winston’s “The Girl Who Talked to Paintings”

“There are a thousand / ways to begin a story,” writes Shannon Winston in the opening poem of her formidable and tender new collection, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings (Glass Lyre Press, 2021). And throughout this book, she offers alternatives—interpretations, imaginings—different ways into the story she will tell and retell, stitch and restitch, rip apart, excavate: “To embroider, decorate. / To strip back, cut. / Yes, maybe / this is the best / way in.”  (“Ways to View Joan Miro’s Triptych Bleu, I, II, III”)

Through a series of ekphrastic poems, Winston’s speaker remembers and responds to a narrative of childhood abandonment and silencing, as well as the uncovering of her own sexual identity and queerness. She recasts a painful narrative through a living process of fantasy, memory, alchemy, and linguistic play, stepping into the luminous worlds of artworks to find voice and presence. The poems of this collection don’t just engage with artworks—they make and remake them, seeking to inhabit and take shelter in them, from nineteenth century oil paintings to contemporary photography and conceptual art. This artful collection is not just vulnerable and deeply felt but also exceedingly smart with a command of craft and of the cerebral. Childlike innocence, confusion, and hurt exist side-by-side with the powerful and deeply compassionate voice of the adult poet, who is in command of honoring and recovering the bravery of her childhood self.

In “Self-Portrait in White While Viewing Salvador Dalí’s Figura en una finestra,” the speaker defines the role art will play in navigating the aftermath of her family’s breaking apart and in parsing the stories about herself she was left with. First and foremost, it is a portal to safer places:

          If only I could step through
          the canvas, climb out

          the window, and over waves
          to this threshold.

          I would turn the brass
          doorknob and feel

          my way through this strange,
          yet not altogether unfamiliar, space

          as my father recedes
          into the background.

          I would call the girl, sister.
          This place, my home.

Offering both physical and imaginative thresholds, art becomes a space for extended metaphor making and allows the transference of self into an imagined home—especially when a sense of safety has been lost: fantasy as a survival mechanism. The physical environment of the painting becomes real, giving the speaker ground to stand on as the connection to her “real” life (the “father / I could no longer talk to”) slips away. The window in Dalí’s painting is a portal within a portal, and we sense that this speaker will be climbing through layer after layer of memory and imagination.

Thresholds in this collection unite real-life movement and action with that in the works of art, as in “Multiple Exposures: A Study,” where the speaker contemplates the glowing path of a ball in motion against a dark background in Berenice Abbott’s Multiple Exposure of a Swinging Ball. When a blue jay strikes her window but then flies away without a trace, its path—“The bird must’ve swung around, // stunned, and reversed course”—invites the speaker to cross the threshold: “But I pressed // my hand against the glass anyway, / hoping to feel something.” The threshold is a physical one (her actual glass window) and an imaginative opening into Abbott’s work as well. The point of contact—of impact and injury, but also of turning—becomes a world unto itself, expanding outward from the moment of the speaker’s attention and questioning.

One of the most poignant threads of this book is the speaker’s evolving connections with artworks from when she was a child up until she becomes the fully embodied poet of the present—and the way in which the poems hold both perspectives simultaneously: vulnerable and powerful, innocent and incisive. In “After the Divorce,” the father having left the family, the speaker and her mother pull up carpet in their new apartment beneath a poster of Gustave Caillebotte’s Les raboteurs de parquet, of men laboring to scrape up flooring. As mother and daughter work on hands and knees, “[groping] our way to wood” the speaker admires the men’s “chiseled // backs, their nimble exertion.” In place of the feelings of rejection or desertion present through many early poems in the book, here her participation in the world of the painting, a form of fantasy—“as if I, too, / were in the scene, slightly offstage”—offers the tools to begin to process her what is becoming of her, an early glimpse at the excavations that are to come: “sandpaper, a hammer, / and nails…the strongest instruments / with which to dismantle the layers // and begin anew.”

We see the present-day speaker fully realizing her power in recognizing the solace paintings might have granted her in her most anguished childhood moments, offering it back in time to her vulnerable young self in the poem “Flower Girls.” Moments after her father’s wedding, the speaker and her sister wait, alone, “in a parking lot on the side of the highway,” dropped off by their newly married father before he returned to his reception.

          We waited (seconds? minutes? 
          hours?) for our mother to pick us up.
          Heat lightning ripped through the sky

          as semis whirred past us,
          stirring up plastic bags and cigarette butts
          at our feet.

Looking tenderly back at herself and sister on that day, the poem juxtaposes the scene at the highway with the white lilies they had scattered as flower girls, “feeling / each petal slip through our fingertips, as if / we were offering up a small part of ourselves.” Recalling John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, she imagines that its enchanting garden might have been a space for the two young girls to step out of the surreal dislocation and heartbreak of being left alone at the side of the road:  

          How I wished I had leaned over
          and whispered to my sister: Close your eyes,
          you be Lily, I’ll be Rose.

          If only we’d had our own
          makeshift lanterns into which we could
          have thrown bottle caps,

          gum wrappers, and glass.
          We would have watched it all smolder.
          We would have transformed

          the parking lot into our own garden
          where cut flowers find new roots
          and girls like us are given a second chance.

From the present, the empowered poet melds her memories into the world of the painting, blending the scenes into something entirely new and redemptive.  

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is also the subject of the book’s titular central sonnet crown, “The Girl Who Talked to Paintings.” In it, the speaker is haunted by the lingering presence of the painting’s original subject Katharine Millet, covered up beneath the finished painting. There is an element of horror to this imagining, and the speaker’s identification with Katharine renders her emerging self-portrait so much the more haunting: “How her chest buckled under the pastels,” she writes of Katharine, even as her own body struggles to find its footing in the world. “I, too, was a first draft, a sketch, half-baked,” she remarks and repeats, as the final line of the first stanza repeated as the start of the next. The repetition of this line (as the last line of the first stanza and first of the next) marks the transformation of the speaker’s own body into a subject struggling between visibility and invisibility, with finding and claiming her own presence. “The way, in college, I got all made up / for boys I’d never love,” she writes. “Foundation, rouge, / lipstick: each day I picked a different way / to transform myself.”

Throughout the collection, the speaker is in a perpetual state of self-creation. In “A Straight Line,” she struggles, as a young girl, to draw a straight line, “even with a ruler,” and instead “made a river // curved with flowers and boats.” In “The Spinners,” an elegant homage to Penelope at her loom, the speaker remembers the different lies she has told to avoid sharing the truth of her sexuality: “I wove the most eloquent deceptions.” Her skills in crafting, however, are also how she comes to her true self, and her modes of creation merge in her metaphor: “At night, / after cleaning away the lies, I reclined on wax paper // and wove a tapestry syllable by magenta syllable, / hoping it would sustain my weight.” Unable to express herself in the ways her teacher and family and the world at large desired of her, she instead creates images of new and more beautiful worlds to step into.

One of the rich pleasures in this collection is Winston’s use of associative linguistic and etymological play that seems to embrace a belief that words, in conjunction with art/image/object, are the deepest source of transformation—of memory, and of history as it lives in the body. In “Keys,” antique keys are a talismanic object for the speaker—each holds “an untold story, / a small part of me.” Holding one up to the light, she

               …let a tunnel of light shine

         through. The wave-like indentations
               of the bow transformed
          the outside world into a sea.

                 All around me, salt and algae.
          Key, from the Spanish cayo, meaning shoal or reef.
                And suddenly, I was swimming.

First the speaker leaps into the imagined physical world created by the image of the key. Then a further leap into the world of the word and its roots becomes an immersion—and a revelation, of a woman who, the speaker says, “If I had been braver, I would have loved her—”. Words and images together become passageways into and through memory; they are the raw materials of re-imagination. 

In “Word Games & Space Travel” the speaker recalls playing word games with her sister saying, the “syllables stitched up / the hours.” For them, words and associations created stories and safe imaginary spaces that are also profoundly physical:

          What do you feel? Felt, cloth, velvet.
               My tongue explored

          each word, probing the space
               between letters.

The words themselves are objects in this poem, with a tactility that gives the speaker permission to be in her body, merging sensuality with writing and finding her voice. In “After the Divorce,” too, as the speaker pulls away at the layers of flooring, delving into the etymologies of the words allows the speaker to peel back her own layers, expressing pain as well as healing and wholeness on the physical plane:

                             …As I scraped back
          the layers, my ligaments burned.
          Ligament, from ligare: to bind, to tie.

          To hold captive, but also to cohere.
          I bore into the floor
          again and again.

In The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, words and images in the hands of the imagination are a source of resilience. In stepping into these paintings, the speaker sets potential traps for herself—confinement to metaphor or a hiding away of herself in the worlds of these paintings—while also evading them. She transforms them into homes for the imagination, into ways of being and perceiving. The interplay of art and words is the way into trauma and memory but also through. In speaking to paintings, in crafting a new voice and self through them, she finds a new world to move around in, new ways to play, new ways to create:

          Glass and thread were her starting points.
          The window frame was a foundation.
          She would build from there.
               (“The Blueprint”)

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