‘My People Pleasing Says the Bartender Would Like Me If I Ordered Something’ and other poems

Phodiso Modirwa

2022

Introduction

When form, substance and style come together in a handful of poems, you know you are in for a treat. That’s Phodiso Modirwa, encountered for the first time when reading for this issue. One of the great joys of the editorial role is discovery. I am also emboldened (by age and experience perhaps?) to assert that it isn’t really the distant, magisterial act one might imagine it to be. On the contrary (at least for me). Editing Phodiso’s poems felt akin to that other favourite pursuit of mine—translation, both being dearly cherished dialogic forms of close reading.

The first poem you will find here is a pantoum. (I cannot read or hear that word without thinking of ‘pontoon’—such are the enticements of language!) For those working with form, the struggle is often about how much adherence is essential to being true (another translatory question). And also, how much tradition is too much tradition—the pantoum, as you no doubt know, comes to us from 15th-century Malaysia; not to mention all those greats from Baudelaire to Waldman who have played with it. Phodiso’s ‘My people pleasing…’ is a pantoum that does not cringe or flaunt. It uses the form to establish slips and slides between affirmation and hesitation, loosening and tightening the lines as the conversation (in the head) demands. The reins are held right, and the result is lucid.

It is this firm, yet never constrained, hold over what she wants to say—and how she chooses to say it—that makes readers sense they are in good hands. Phodiso knows just when the omission of a word can spring a line to life, especially in the utterance, so that through her craft we may relearn the “forgotten grip of dependability”.

— Sampurna Chattarji
The Bombay Literary Magazine

My People Pleasing Says the Bartender Would Like Me If I Ordered Something

My people pleasing says, the bartender would like me more if I ordered something
My mind’s hand travels the lean of my purse, singles out a crumpled note
Counts the days before the month dies, decides this cannot be spared
I will sleep sober, his unsmiling face on the back of my eyelids

My mind’s hand travels the lean of my purse, singles out a crumpled note
Within each fold a whispered will, supplication to last the week
I will sleep sober, his unsmiling face on the back of my eyelids
I will sleep proud knowing I did not try

Within each fold a whispered will, supplication to last the week
None of my intentions last the flicker of the week
I will sleep proud knowing I did not try
To buy a stranger’s love with my lack

None of my intentions last the flicker of the week
So I say to he who will love me, teach me how
To not buy a stranger’s love with my lack
And to keep for myself not the change

So I say to the one who loves me, teach me how
To need your affirming eye only less
To keep for myself more than the change
To keep all my crumpled notes

To need your affirming eye only less
To decide it can be spared
To keep my crumpled notes
While my people pleasing cries, he will like you if you order something

 


 

Everyone Needs a Prayer

Everyone needs a prayer
A pleading with the gods
Or pleasing of the gods for time spent here
For love spent here when anywhere else
Might have been good ground
Everyone needs a door cracked open
A gentle suggestion
To come in, make home however temporary
Plant feelings like seeds into pots of listening ears
Everyone needs a listening ear
Especially the little lost
Especially the sojourning souls
Especially the ones with searching hearts
For something like home
Something like lights on at evening time and laughter
Wafting like incense over everything
Won’t the gods take this attempt at presence as an offering
Won’t they look down at us and think
Maybe, they might just be learning something after all

 


 

Rainy Season

After work, I drag myself to the kombi stop
Heavy with a longing for a love several villages away
My steps soggy dough kneading without end
There is a cyclone making dance floor of Africa’s
Southern end
Everything is wet and cold

In the wetness where everything is slippery
My father slips on an illness and for the life of me
I cannot catch him
My heart has forgotten the grip of dependability
Guilt seeps in under my door to wet everything with shame
In my sleep, I answer a call from the hospital
And in place for the nurse’s voice a mockingbird says
Someone’s daughter took your father to the hospital today
Flashed a medical aid card and got the best hands on his prostate
Where are your hands Phodiso?
Why are your hands so slippery?
Get a grip Ndo, get a grip

Acknowledgements

Image Credits: The Artist’s Hand II. 1979 Henry Moore (1898-1986) Presented by the Henry Moore Foundation 1986.

The last three lines of Phodiso’s poem ‘Rainy Season’ led us to reach for Moore’s sketches.

Contributor

Phodiso Modirwa

Phodiso Modirwa is a Motswana writer and poet with works published on Guernica Magazine, 20.35 Africa Anthology For Contemporary Poetry, Lolwe, Rising Phoenix Review and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Speaking In Code was selected by Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes for the upcoming New Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Boxset (Tisa).

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