23 NOVEMBER 1991, Page 40

Tulips in a Jug

Their carriage and comportment are superb, Just so: they're ready for the camera's eye, The girls all sisters, cousins. Here they offer A stopped bright fragment of their history, Composed and radiant in deepest pink, And high on each slender neck a glossy head. Tonight there will be music and then dancing: They wear their best; they will be late to bed.

Crushed together with a stiff green creak Of taffeta, they seem to hold their breath For one long moment — and Monsieur has finished! (In sepia, the portrait will survive his death.) The first steps of the dance: they move apart. Bare arms reach lightly round a sister's waist. Inside these flowers, still, ambiguous, Pistil and stamen lie together, formal, chaste.

The petals curve around a hidden centre, Close and secret, hands around a flame, Then flare out with the brilliant summer waltzes. Outside at dusk, a young man calls a name.

Next morning things have changed: abandoned, wild, A silky wrap lies open where it fell.

Move close and stare inside: recall the darkness Of that first looking, touching, honey smell.

Beatrice Garland