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Singer-Sargent's 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose'

Two little girls,
incandescent in white pinafores,

hold Japanese lanterns against a backdrop
of tiger lilies, muted by late May evening,

observed but not observing,
and behind them, hidden by thick green stems,

somewhere outside the painting, a party
goes on, where little girls do not belong,

where their mother in gardenia-pink silk
waltzes with their father—

if you look closely you hear her laughter,
the giddy murmur of guests feted

on chocolate-dipped apricots and the helium
headiness of champagne—and for just a moment

as her husband’s fingers press the small of her back,
the music rising like mist, caught

in the outermost limbs of the trees,
she feels seventeen and virgin, waiting

inside this potpourri of pleasure and dread
for her body to be stained with his kisses,

to know the touch of this man, this stranger,
until he wears her scent like a bruise, a musk

more potent than any flower, for a brief moment
amidst the twirling of pastel dresses—women

perfumed, powdered to the translucent smoothness
of petit-fours, sweetmeats to be devoured later

in tall mahogany beds—just for that moment
in the middle of those twinkling lights and motion

she is perfectly still at the center of her body,
a copper-bright stasis which radiates

along her vertebra, the feather-tickle of lust,
more animal than love, more urgent,

and for that moment she is no one’s mother,
and the two little girls unaware,

must wait forever in their corner of garden,
Edwardian angels dappled in light.

by Melissa Morphew

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