Vol. 111 (2021)

 What Happened Was: I Read Anna Leahy

By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.

Sayreville, NJ, USA


I’m ten years old. My cousin, aunt, and I leave the mall and walk through the dimly lit parking garage to get to the car. “Look,” she says, as she takes her key ring, slides three keys between three fingers, and makes a fist. “Always hold your keys like this when you’re walking alone.”

I’m fourteen and have shed my baby weight from a summer of walking across Brooklyn. One night, leaving a friend’s, I cut through the park to make it home quicker, already pushing my curfew. Two men in baseball caps appear behind me. They follow me and keep following me. All of our paces quickening. I’m still ten blocks from my house. I put my keys between my fist. They are closer behind me. I make a quick dart up the stoop of the first house I see, pretending it’s mine. Pretending I live there.

I’m in my twenties, waitressing. A few weeks pass before it becomes clear I’m going to have to ask my boss to stop grabbing my ass every time he walks behind me. After I ask, he stops. I am proud of him for stopping.

Question: Why am I proud of him for stopping?

Answer: There was the one who never stopped.

It’s difficult for me to talk about Anna Leahy’s latest chapbook, What Happened Was:, without remembering all of this, without saying: Yeah, one time what happened was … Without saying ... Me, too.

I don’t mean to misspeak here. What happens in What Happened Was: is not rape. This is explicit within the poem “What Happened Was: Not My Story to Tell”, when the speaker says: 

         What Happened was:                  the men I knew well didn’t rape me
                                                    the men I barely knew didn’t rape me
                                                    men I didn’t know didn’t rape me

These lines represent the heart of the chapbook which emphasizes the accepted sociocultural microaggressions that enable rape: the normalization of the oppressing gaze, the acceptance of unwanted advances, the assumptions based on an outfit or pair of shoes. Leahy’s latest chapbook documents a lifetime of little thing after little thing. While What Happened Was: may not directly involve rape, it does directly involve, and interrogate, rape culture.

So while the men the speaker knew and did not know never raped her, she gives pause before considering herself lucky. Of this fact, she writes it “wasn’t luck / wasn’t something I should thank anyone for”, which begs of the reader an important question: Why might some women feel fortunate or blessed to not have been raped? What cultural forces regulate this mindset?

Our introduction to the speaker is by way of her mother who, after becoming pregnant with our speaker, finishes law school, and lives a life committed to helping others. “What Happened Was: My Mother Was Pregnant With Me” is the first poem of the collection, and stresses the notion that our speaker grew up with a life rooted in “fairness and chance”, but also recognizes that because her mother was needed by people, she would have to learn how to do as she could on her own.

Such character developments become significant when encountering poems like “What Happened Was: I was at a Party at a Fraternity House”, during which, after a night of constant badgering, the speaker kicks a fraternity brother/“friend” between the legs to get him to lay-off. Uncool, his fellow brothers whine. What the speaker did was “was too much.” When the speaker wonders what they would rather her have done instead, no one speaks the answer.

One imagines it takes a childhood pillared in fairness, justice, and law to stand up for oneself in such away, to do what fifty other twenty-somethings wouldn’t have the courage to do: kick him where it hurts. Where did she get that kind of chutzpa? The first page of the book tells us: from her mama. The poem “What Happened Was: Cause & Effect” also echoes this sentiment when the speaker tells us she “grew up in a “no means no & a crisis hotline number on the bathroom stall.”

By the middle of the chapbook, readers understand we are listening to an intelligent, self-assured speaker, who, knowing all of the unwritten rules of being alone and being a woman, still commits the typical mistakes. Returning to “What Happened Was: Not My Story to Tell”, the speaker describes:

                  What happened was:                    I went to bars
                                                          I stayed out till all hours
                                                          I walked home alone in the dark
                                                          I drove alone on highways
                                                          I went to men’s apartments with them

The list continues. And still the speaker continues in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a success in her field, academia, where the microaggresions continue. In “What Happened Was: I Said a Goal Aloud”, the speaker recognizes that a male colleague whom she considers equal looks at her as if she is “full of doubt”, not recognizing that her many accolades and accomplishments make her more qualified to achieve said goal than he is. When the speaker does indeed achieve the goal in the poem “What Happened Was: I Had Good News”, she is excited to share the announcement with him.

Anna Leahy

Our speaker walks out of her office at the same time as her colleague (friend?), both turning into the narrow hallway.

                  What happened was:                        he kissed me full on the mouth
                                                              he was happy, he was excited

Our speaker loses memory for a moment: she doesn’t remember who said what or if anyone said anything at all, all she remembers is leaving as quickly and politely as she could. Later in the poem, the speaker confesses:

                What happened was:           I knew not to ruin the idea of him for other people

What happens in What Happened Was: is that men are woefully inappropriate with our speaker. The first time she found herself in this situation, she stood up for herself. For this act, she was jeered. So, the second time it happens, she says nothing. While our speaker tells us that it is to protect her colleague and his reputation, we understand that part of this decision was also to protect herself.

Not every poem in the chapbook bears the title “What Happened Was:”, though each poem that does carries the same form, the phrase always left justified, in a space readers can choose not to notice. It’s a purposeful aside that mirrors what many of our communities do towards unwanted sexual acts upon women: look the other way.

In any case, there is a perfect division within the chapbook—ten titular poems, ten poems with original titles, though two of those ten original titles imitate work by W.B. Yeats and William Carlos William. These imitations are strong poems that propel the narrative, still one must wonder why a chapbook immersed in rape culture includes the spirits of two male poets whose own poetry and personal pasts represent nonchalance towards women’s issues. The remark here is not a criticism, but another way of thinking about the collection and about the history of teaching poetry. The reasons for choosing Yeats and Williams, who dominate the literary world, rather than emulating female-identified poets, stem far beyond notions of popularity.

I’m a junior in college and my English Literature class meets at 8:15 on Monday mornings. On this day, the Professor is reading W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”, animating his recitation with gestures to emphasize how Zeus captures Leda and “holds her helpless breast upon his breast.” I think I sense joy in his voice when he speaks of “the broken wall.” A shudder in my shoulders reminds me of the weekend. I keep my head bowed towards the textbook for the next hour of class, and I say nothing.


Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections What Happened Was:, Aperture, and Constituents of Matter and the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University and edits the international Tab Journal.

(Anna Leahy photo: credit Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Anna Leahy

Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.


Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abriana Jetté, Ph.D., is the editor of the anthology series Stay Thirsty Poets, as well as a poet, essayist, and educator. Her work has appeared in The Seneca Review, Plume Poetry Journal, Poetry New Zealand, River Teeth, among others. Her research interests include creative writing studies and alternative pedagogies. She currently teaches at Kean University and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.