Stale Cigarettes: A Poem About Survival

by Vanessa Taylor

My aunties have a seat reserved for me at their table
pack of cigarettes set aside
They don’t know when I’ll come
‘n neither do I
We only know I belong
‘neath clouds of smoke
stale Pepsi in a room temperature glass

Did you know that when you move
From stale Georgia heat
Anger adapts to a colder climate?
Did you know your legacy isn’t the house you were born in
Or houses your aunties defended from their own husbands
But carved into your bones?
Did you know that you can no more run from that table
And that chair
Than you can run from shadows?

My aunties don’t know when I will arrive.
Some of them were old woman when they came
And some of them sat down when they were young
After they laid with their first man and realized
the Devil hides in his touch.

I don’t do love poems
So excuse me.
This is the closest I will get.

My grandma tells me about her sister
How my grandmother followed her here from Georgia
Followed the bruises & the unanswered questions
To the doorstep of a too small house, with too many children
And not enough man present
How my grandmother told her sister
“Pack his bags for him. I’ll get a job”

And I think that’s a good introduction to that table.

If you ask my grandfather he’ll tell you women there are bitter
But beneath their smoke there are greens cooking
And homemade pies
Cabinets full of spices with labels worn down from use
Nothing bitter, only homey.

If you ask my uncles they will laugh with their bellies full of liquor
tell you those women only complain
But they stopped complaining as soon as they took their seat
Hands rubbing knees tender from hard wood floors
They learned quiet prayers never saved their mothers
So they transfer whispered pleas into fists
Learned to lay men out
And grab sisters by the hand.

The men of my family will tell you it is a table of women who don’t know how to love.
And you will regret your setting the way I did mine.

But my grandmother tells me stories about men

How tragic is it that our strength as Black women rests on how hot the pot is on the stove
On how clever we are
On how fast we can run
How tragic that we had to build a hymn
From a disturbed choir
Organ pipes stuffed with money
We don’t let him know we have

Our legacy rests in screen doors
Slamming on broken backs
In a table of aunties & sisters & cigarette smoke
Grits bubbling on the stove just in case
Just in case
He always has a way to come back

Vanessa Taylor is an organizer and writer from Minneapolis. Their work focuses on addressing the intersections of being a queer, Black Muslim and their own lived experiences.