Coping and Resilience in Xandria Phillips's Reasons for Smoking
review by Logan February
In Reasons for Smoking, Xandria Phillips documents, interrogates, and coexists with the hardship, violence, and terror that Black and queer women have to face in their daily lives. The poems speak on a personal level, close to the bones of the poet herself; on a deeply ancestral level, for all of the "nameless women floating as bones in Atlantic basements;" and on a universal level, where those who live on the margins of society can gasp and clutch at their chests because, here, their story, too, is being told.
Where a lesser collection would give its final battle cry, Reasons for Smoking is only still going strong, gathering speed, blurring lines with careful curation of language so that all facets of aching existence are indelibly intertwined. The reader is made to understand that this collage story is, at the same time, a single one. This is where the book's genius lies: the mastery of craft is amplified with the spirited speaker, reckless and loud, who is "not one who / is cautious around men."
The speaker introduces us to the work with one bold statement: "I write to you from the predicament of Blackness." True to her words, we are led through the whole harrowing experience of Blackness in America. The speaker is strong and strongly flawed, adopting several coping mechanisms to deal with her "predicament," her "holy embodiments of Atlantic trauma." In "—BIGLY—" she tells us she "don't dance unless [she's] sloshed / to [her] eyebrows in fermentation." In the titular poem, we are exposed further to the motivations behind her habits, how she smokes "to preoccupy the mouth / in the presence of men" and because "a burning tip / is a weapon."
In America, Black queer women must learn resilience as a prerequisite for survival. This collection goes even deeper to humanize the subject population, shifting away the layers of armor to reveal the fragile and the tender and the soft. We witness the confession that smoking is "a way to be discreet / in kissing [her] fingers." She quarantines herself with some significant women in Black history (Edmonia Lewis, Anarcha, Michelle Obama) in order to explore herself better.
Phillips goes on to demonstrate a fundamental communion with her ancestors, their food, their rituals, their journey; so intrinsic is it that at a point in the collection, the self, "I" is replaced with "we":
we carried the ocean in we / mouths
for the longest /
and some of we /
well I did as well /
water / and we did
not retch / but we
have felt / a churn
since / tasting the
wife of a man hung /
how his feet nodded
a route to hell / the salt
of his wife’s inlet like
a fruit we never tasted
— from "A Fruit We Never Tasted"
A tension is created in the juxtaposition of a physical death with social one. With gutting allusions to the KKK, the Angola Penitentiary, and the horrific Tuskegee experiments, the speaker chronicles all of the evil visited upon Blacks in America. She speaks of experiencing a social death, which is simultaneously excruciating and numbing. This, too, is a coping mechanism. In "Contract for Social Death," an explanation is offered for this: “After your first death you won’t feel a thing."
Logan February is a happy-ish Nigerian owl who likes pizza & typewriters. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Ellis Review, and a book reviewer at Platypus Press' the Wilds. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Raleigh Review, Yemassee, Wildness, Glass, Tinderbox, and more. He is the author of How to Cook a Ghost (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), Painted Blue with Saltwater (Indolent Books, 2018) & Mannequin in the Nude (PANK Books, 2019). Say hello on Instagram & Twitter @loganfebruary.