“I did everything I was supposed to” writes Diana Whitney in “Salad Days” from her second poetry collection Dark Beds, and goes on to list just some of those everythings:
covered the grays, planted the sunflowers,
watered the dry petunias till streams
poured out the cracks, seeded
rows of Russian kale and sugar-snaps,
cradled your sadness, buried my father,
fed my mother and took her to the doctor, drove up
and down the hill to pony lessons . . .
The “supposed to’s” in “Salad Days” range from providing snacks for the entire first-grade class to bundling kids out the door in the morning to weeding the garden to tending the speaker’s “insatiable fire”—which is to say, “Salad Days,” like Dark Beds itself, encompasses the packed, can-hardly-stop-for-breath life of someone trying to be simultaneously mother, daughter, partner, poet, woman, and self. Whitney’s long sprawling sentences in “Salad Days” re-enact that juggling act, tenuously balancing each entry on the endless to-do list of mid-life. Dark Beds is a clear-eyed account of the push-and-pull at work on the speaker in these poems: young children, aging parents, the ebb and flow of marital love, and a longing for a life more expansive than the nuclear family. It is also a master class on the uses of rhyme and music; the reader feels these poems singing in her bones.
Many of these poems live in the space of motherhood. “Kindergarten Studies the Human Heart” with its backbeat of “become become become” is both sweet in its depiction of the innocent lives of the “Fours” and the “Fives” (referring to the children’s ages) and haunting in its depiction of the relentless forward march of time in which children inevitably age away from their parents. This focus on passing time and growing children appears in “Curiosity,” in which one of Whitney’s daughters runs “pell-mell through the Hall of Human History.” They are literally in a museum, but the line evokes a child running into the future (which is what they do, after all). We see a growing daughter entering middle school in “Fusion,” and in “Dark Beds” Whitney writes:
We can’t slow it down, can’t turn it around.
My girl, this is it our singular journey,
one footfall then another as day
follows night chases one more day[.]
I appreciated Whitney’s expansive exploration of motherhood, encompassing its darker sides and limitations. In “Curiosity” Whitney writes, “the girls want me // always in the kitchen like a planet, / steady sphere with gravitational pull.” Until they are grown (and sometimes even then) children tend to put their parents in a box marked “parent” and need them to stay confined to that comforting space; it may be especially true that daughters want only to see their mothers as “Mom.” The role is confining even as it is pleasurable. It is also a role tailor-made for doubt and misgivings. In “Salad Days” Whitney wonders, “Can I say it? Say I’m a good-enough mother,” giving voice to that constant doubt that mothers in particular feel about their parenting: Am I good enough? Am I doing enough? Am I doing it right? Whitney’s poems don’t only show the healthy snacks and homemade soap-bubble mix; they remain open to self-implication and reveal the inevitable miscalculations and missteps of parenting. I’m a part-time skating instructor in a hockey school, and from the moment the speaker’s daughter took off skating without her helmet in “Mirage” my heart was in my throat. And indeed the child does have an accident leading to a concussion, “[t]he crack / of her skull hitting ice” reverberating. In today’s hyper-critical parenting environment, when complete strangers think nothing of telling you how to dress, feed, bathe, and educate your child, it’s a brave parent who can say publicly: here are the miscalculations I’ve made. Here are their consequences. This, too, is motherhood, its if-I-could-go-back-I’d-do-it-differentlys and near misses.
The conflicted emotions surrounding motherhood and marriage appear throughout Dark Beds. We see a woman trying to re-emerge from the early years of parenting in which the self—particularly the mother’s self—is almost completely submerged. “Call it mornings alone, black tea / and Sappho, the poems I’d forgotten coming back to me now” Whitney writes in the title poem of the mother-writer coming back to her work. But then, “a child warm from sleep / sliding into my lap, knocking pen from hand” pulls the writer back into the mother role. And not, here at least, with regret, for Whitney describes the child as “naked and delicious as a hot cross bun.” These crosscurrents are part of what makes Dark Beds so compelling and so true.
The crosscurrents extend beyond the ways in which motherhood is both expansive and confining. From inside an orderly and ordered life, transgression can appear doubly appealing. “Poised at the threshold / the choice is always / to step across or turn back,” Whitney writes in “Etymology of Transgression.” Whitney writes movingly about longing—about sexual longing and about longing for a larger, deeper life—and about the pull of transgression sometimes simply for its own sake, (“Transgression was once // the most interesting thing about me,” she writes in “Current.”) Several of the poems interrogating transgression, which appear in the second section of the book, employ the sonnet form or near-sonnets using end-rhyme (elsewhere, Whitney’s rhyme- and sound-rich poems almost always rely on internal rhyme and consonance). Exploring transgression and fantasy—the speaker in these poems is longing for a beloved other than the husband—inside the restriction of form strikes me as an inspired and fascinating choice. It is as if Whitney needed the relative safety of a contained space to explore dangerous thoughts, as in the poem “Geography,” with the speaker’s thoughts “unwinding in dark sheets, phantom lover // like a barb in the gills, rasping ruin / me take me sink me in the water again“; or “Torched,” where the speaker daydreams on a midsummer day, “[y]ou coasted / slow as syrup down the edge / of my daydream—engine purring, windows down, / rusty truck of trouble come back around.” Inside the field of the form, imagination can roam but the form provides a fence to keep it from roaming too far, as in “Light Betrayal in August,” one of the near sonnets in the collection:
I read and wrote and dozed but didn’t text
you here. Promises kept, good girl,
go swallow summer hand over fist,
sweet basil, sungolds, like this like this
Or as in “Summer Solstice”: “Little moon-calk, let this run its course. / If he lit your imagination like a torch, forgive him / and keep burning.” Rarely have I seen a collection in which a married female protagonist, mother of children, so expressly considers transgression. Rachel Zucker’s Bad Wife Handbook comes to mind, but few others.
Throughout Dark Beds Whitney’s images are deeply influenced by the physical world, populated especially by water which in its shape-shifting forms flows through the collection: rivers flooded or frozen, heavy rain, rising mist, icy roads, even the Curiosity rover discovering traces of ice on Mars. More often than not, the water element presents as danger or portent: ice leads to a skating accident in “Mirage” and an auto accident in “Demeter in Winter;” semis get stuck on “treacherous ice roads” in “Ice House”; a woman drowns in “River Mother” and another in “Demeter in Winter;” the “ferryman waits at the river of oblivion” in “Summer Solstice”; “streams are rising, threatening to flood” in “Gray Matters.” All those rushing rivers and water transforming into its different shapes underscore the passage of time that is one of the concerns of this collection, the growing children and aging parents and tested marriage. In lush and musical verse, Diana Whitney’s Dark Beds explores the tensions inherent in family life: its attractions and frustrations, the temptations to shatter it, life’s unavoidable dangers, the parents and children and lovers, “everyone’s roots / tangled up in each other” (“Salad Days”).