Book Review: What Happened Was:

What Happened Was:
by Anna Leahy
Harbor Editions, 2021
an imprint of Small Harbor Publishing

Cover art by Stacy Russo, Women Gathering to Create Beauty

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

This is such a wonderful chapbook. It’s the kind of book I read several times, immersing myself in the poems, benefitting from re-reading after reading the endnotes. It was fun to re-read the book in November, shortly after turning the clocks back:

     In the Meantime

     is the mean
     time, that malicious wait-and-see,
     more-or-less, in-between
     time, until we set our clocks back
     to save the grieving daylight.

I say “fun” about the coincidence, very aware of “malicious” and “grieving” in this short poem that falls between poems that feel very timely and important. Several have titles that begin “What Happened Was:” and some have a “he said, she said,” component, alas, though it’s mostly what she said here, as if to right the balance.

I’m grateful that Escape Into Life got to publish several of the “What Happened Was:” poems, including the opening poem, “What Happened Was: My Mother Was Pregnant With Me.” Many of us recall that pregnancy could (and still does) derail a woman’s career, but in this case the woman was delayed but not derailed: “she passed the bar exam the next year…wrote fairness into the law for me…knew she had chances others didn’t…” and:

     What happened was     I grew up believing in fairness and chance.

That uplift and resilience right from the start relieved me in advance, gave me hope as a reader. Yes, there was more unfairness, but this speaker was able to meet it. In “What Happened Was: I Was at a Party at a Fraternity House,” I braced myself, but

     What happened was     probably not what you think.

These poems use repetition of that opening phrase—anaphora—and a kind of list form to carry us through some difficult material. “What Happened Was: Cause & Effect” incorporates legal definitions of rape and testimony by Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. Other poems are just as attentive to the meanings and origins of words—I loved everything I learned in “Gloss,” such as, “’Insinuate’ is from the Latin meaning ‘to curve into’”—as well as to the problems and solutions of writing itself, and to what can’t or doesn’t get said. “Solve for X” is “for the many silence breakers,” and it acknowledges the complexities and tensions of communication and relationship. It doesn’t, alas, solve anything.

Fortunately, as in “What Happened Was: _________________,” the silence and the blankness open up the possibilities for creative thinking and new conversations. “What happened was

     the blank page becomes an invitation
     a space before text
     a place for someone else’s voice
     another story
     my hand cupped to my ear, I’m listening

I invite you to read Anna Leahy’s poems here (at EIL) and in her chapbook from Small Harbor Publishing! She’s listening. We can, too.

Anna Leahy at EIL

Anna Leahy in The Truth About Poetry at EIL

Anna Leahy at Harbor Editions, Small Harbor Publishing



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