POETRY – 4 Poems by Cheswayo Mphanza

Ode to the Touch
My mother's medium shoulder press at dinner,
       after her hands
               have caressed the flagging yellow notice—
the landlord's kick me sign
on our backs
       and the family eats    like death row
               or death roaming as she asks with a closed mouth,
are you full, paying respect to hunger’s daily visit,
        which greets us with a half­hitch knotted hand­shake,
               dry and throaty
and our welcome
                       through the front door, greeting him
with an appetite and cool glass
        for the desert in his mouth.
The refuge through the girl
                      I used to kiss in Apostolic church hallways,
falling into my arms
        as if I was hoarding some water
she could wade in to be baptized. How her lips
      nibbled and spit scripture
              to my tongue, something about Proverbs,
the Holy Ghost when we kissed.
                              Before I told Devante
                    we were
                           the failed abortions of the south side—
          his Englewood­powered punch
sinking in my gut and I knew
                                    this was the heaviest gift
        a friend could give.
                       I wish I could cry
                                in someone's lingering arms. I want
a woman to beg for me the way hands plead
       when crawling off the body
of someone they long to love.
        I wish I could heal
                 the bruised south side thighs
      of the women
who catch my bus by dancing with them
        to a quicksand type of song
a friend told me can only be felt
         by desperately hanging onto a woman’s waist
                 in a dimly lit empty room,
         pushed in the corner—stay in my corner, darling.
I wish my calling for a woman
                                        could be as primitive as James Brown’s
howling. The way one can touch          without touching,
      but I do not know
the way yet. The grip it requires; the static arms needed. How it bends
and the body kneels. The weighted history in its fists. How it keeps
a good woman from leaving
                                       by letting go.


A Taxi Driver Poem
“The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go.”
 ­ Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver.

I lasso my body across the loops and torn torso of New York’s boroughs,
threading myself in and through its hidden crevices of debris,

laced with the nighttime aroma of funk and lust among those
who are unfiltered and can’t find solace in sleeping. Bodies move in effigy,

shadows clinging for Manhattan’s stinging nights when everyone is a buzz
or murmur of loneliness. And I, riding and driving numb­bodied,

sit stiffened scoping the youth and their desire through the rear­view mirrors
tainted with their own murkiness. Sometimes, I wish the city’s skyline

would pour itself on me, bringing the light that eludes me when I’m dying
in the darkness, but there’s an addicting cadence at night when the cackling streets

are as lonely as I am: the pimps strolling and junkies exchanging the rusted
and blood stained needles for fixes; baton exchanges of moonshine and brandy;

Time Square’s struggling colors melting us all. I listen to the musicality
of madness, a lingering key out of sync with time, but in a rhythm I hear

dragging me when I make sharp turns on the edges of Brooklyn,
what I imagine heaven must have sounded like before it was tampered

with by its own careless drivers—men taking the wheel of someone else’s
vehicle already in motion. Maybe it’s the woman with the placid eyes,

cocooned in whiteness who can save me. She appears like a resurrection
from the filth, cooling the journey, and I begin to think of destination:

the budding joy I won’t let ripen inside me, but I give way to the deafening
dead men and women who wait to hail me on some empty street,

preferring to ride off the meter.






Hail Mary
for Shakur

When I am a gashed flame looking for a dark room
in the tranquil hours of temptations and rind hearts
unfurled across the blisters of Los Angeles’ streets, my bandana
tapered to my head and one hand clutching the raw steel
tethered to my waist, I wonder if I ever got it right, these Ambitionz
Az a Ridah, being wounded by those I sparked
from wet matches to smog lanterns looking to extinguish
the burning that warms me. If I Die 2nite, when my body
can no longer harbor bullet and stab wounds, when someone
has watered down the fire I built from calloused and ashy hands,
I hope I can meet my maker in that place gangstas lust over.
Sure, I’d like to meet the devil too, smoke Newports
or exchange a bottle of Tennesse Whiskey and reminisce
on the malice and havoc we caused in our primes,
but the seduction of heaven haunts me too. I wonder if heaven
has a place where thugs can love by different measures
with around the way women, draped in the nonchalance
only the west side and its lukewarm weather can provide?
Will the angels fear me rolling through the gates
in a body scarred by the purgatory of the world I knew?
Will God greet me with an underhand slide handshake
and pass me a bottle of malt liquor, blasting obscenities
from Gabriel’s trumpet, or are my desires too much
of mortal men? I wonder, is there a heaven for a G?






Khadija With the Frowning Face
for Afaa Michael Weaver and Jean Toomer


On 75th & Exchange, where the rusted men and soiled women go to retire their agile
youth and cast on the frangible body bags of days lost as they sink into the wetted pulpits
of Vodka nips and bum wines, dragging arthritic pasts on the gravel bodied corner;
rancor slipping off their lips, reminiscing on a prime they couldn’t exercise, when their
hands were sturdy, caressing satin­suede men and lace­silked women, before they
suffered a thirst they couldn’t quench—it was there I saw her.
She takes the winter and makes it summer…summer could take some lessons from her

Maybe eleven or twelve, draped in big sister’s childhood, mama’s survival, and papa’s
refusal; the scar­handed hand me downs of hands let down. How clothes become
heirlooms. Her hair looms in shrinking edges laid flat to the crisp, but black hair don’t
listen. Hands stone­grazed and a back dropped after a couple of dips in south side pot
holes, cutting through bedazzled patterned jeans, severing the knees and trying
to pacify a too­ripe prime. She slapped the bruise until it could quiet its pain, hushing and
slushing the wound with a fading whisper that sounded like an ancient breath breathing
down a remedy filled gust for what may ache, but not break.

She takes the winter and makes it summer…summer could take some lessons from her

Her frowning face twists in a shrouded joy, thinking of Nancy’s laughing face,
unbothered and freckled in ecstasy. But no luscious and bellowing big band sound for
Khadija. No smothering of Ol’ Blue Eye’s quicksand voice. No glossy, beaming lights of
Carnegie Hall that could blind a city girl used to the dimming of street lights. She dances
to the cacophony of the rusted men and soiled women, a birthright for girls who jump in
potholes and emerge as women ready with a chilled drink for the undying thirst.

She takes the winter and makes it summer…summer could take some lessons from her




Born in Zambia and raised in Chicago, Cheswayo’s work focuses on intersecting the shared cultural past of people across the diasporic community through music, folklore, dance, and oral traditions. A Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference contributor and Columbia university fellow, he attends Middlebury college where he studies literature and aesthetic productions in the black radical tradition. 

*Photo by Kenny Ong

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