Reviewed by Paul Telles
What She Was Wearing by Shawn Aveningo Sanders
The Poetry Box (November 5, 2019), 48 pp, $12
ISBN #: 978-1-948461-32-0
Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/what-she-was-wearing
In What She Was Wearing, Portland poet Shawn Aveningo Sanders bravely reveals her experience as a rape victim. In a series of 29 muscular poems, Sanders recounts the horrific experience of being raped during a fraternity party in the 1980s. As well as offering a heart-rending description of the rape itself, the collection delves into the trauma’s influence on the rest of Sanders’ life, exploring its ramifications for her identity as a mother, a wife, and a woman.
The 2019 chapbook uses its title as a refrain, repeatedly deploying the phrase to reveal, ridicule, and lament the hypocritical assumption that women’s clothing attracts and justifies rape. The book’s third poem, “What She Was Wearing,” introduces the theme by describing Sanders’ innocence as she readied herself for the party. Excited and eager to fit in, Sanders assembled an outfit that included a pink sheet twisted into a toga / over a one-piece swimsuit, / pink chiffon bow in my hair /… and a big smile.
By the end of the poem, Sanders’ innocence is ruined and her outfit is soiled with blood and depravity:
And then I woke up to a strap
falling off one shoulder,
the other strap cut
revealing my breast,
a drop of blood
where the knife
nicked my flesh, the crotch
of my swimsuit sliced in half…
This is what I wore running home.
Frank and uncompromising, the rest of the poems provide intimate insight into feelings of helplessness, alienation, and fear. Some poems explore Sanders’ inability to talk to others about her experience and her reluctance to go to authorities. Others show how the rape can be recalled to consciousness by random events such as hearing that a football player on TV has the same name as her rapist. “How to Survive Suicide” laughs at itself while staring into the abyss:
Wash the pills down
with a Yoohoo.
No need to count calories now.
In one of the book’s most touching poems, “Prepping My Kids of College,” Sanders deftly portrays her conflicted emotions when she felt obliged to let my secret out, / tell my story. / For ignorance is dangerous, / not bliss. She chose not to teach her daughters how to avoid rape that day.
I didn’t buy them a whistle.
Instead, I taught my son
the horrid ugliness of the crime
against a woman, a girl, a mother, a sister.
The children react sympathetically, bowing their heads like wilting roses, hugging and crying with their mother until she feels her shame morph into courage. Sadly, though, the poem ends with a troubling response from the children’s father: … he asked me if I told them / what I was wearing.
In the end, Sanders finds some peace and healing, but it still feels tentative and unsure. In “There Will Be Days,” she accepts that she can still be reminded of the rape by fragrances, songs, or even the accidental scrape of fingernail / against a crisp, white-linen tablecloth. Still, she takes solace in everyday life—the weddings, anniversaries, graduations—and in the special moments that come unbidden, such as the wonder in your son’s eyes / meeting his twin baby sisters.
Unornamented and unvarnished, What She Was Wearing skillfully blends art and testimony. Reading the poems, I felt angry, tearful, and sometimes overwhelmed by sadness. In the end, though, I rejoiced in one of my favorite poetic pleasures: the ability to briefly experience another person’s suffering as if it were my own. All I really have to say is, “Thank you.”
Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in BoomerLitMag, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.