‘The Shebeen Queen’ by Mafika Gwala is a short twenty line poem which is made up of lines of a variety of lengths. The poem does not conform to a specific pattern of rhyme or meter, and the lines range from two words to seven. It is also important to note the narrative nature of this work. It is clear from the first four lines that the poem is going to tell a story of one kind of another.
One final aspect to note is the title of the poem. The word “shebeen” is used in South Africa (from where this poem comes) as well as Ireland and Scotland, to refer to an unlicensed establishment that sells alcohol. These places are generally located in lower-class neighbourhoods and are not held in high regard.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how “She” is waiting for her final debtor. This female main character is clearly the “shebeen queen” mentioned in the title. One is able to deduce that the debt owed by the man revolves around liquor of some other somewhat unsavoury practice.
The man is made to pay his debt, with some encouragement from the proprietress. She clearly feels slightly bad about this, but not enough to forgive him. She comments on how much he owes and says she did not force him to spend it.
The poem concludes with the speaker taking her earnings and spending them at a nearby butcher shop.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Shebeen Queen
She stood at the factory gate
vooping his oversized overalls.
In the first set of four lines, the speaker begins by stating that “She,” the main character of the narrative, was standing “at the factory gate.” The story told in the past tense and from a perspective that allows for an understanding of the main character’s own thoughts.
This person is waiting at the gates, “watch[ing]” as her “last debtor approached.” From one’s prior knowledge of the poem, supplied through the title, one is able to understand who the woman is and what business she is running. She is likely the owner of the “shebeen.” For more information of what a “shebeen” is, see the introduction. The title makes clear that she is the “queen” of this place and it is to her that others come to pay their debts. She has one final “debtor” coming to pay his tab.
Her last Friday’s collection
— with a quivering smile.
In the second set of lines, it is revealed this “shebeen” is only one of many that she runs. The speaker, and presumably the main character, consider the business to be a real “firm.” While it may not be a respectable place to be, it makes a good profit.
The next line is somewhat ambiguous as it could be referring to the number of “shebeens”
run by the speaker or to the number of “bank notes” the debtor owes. It is important to note that the speaker does not know this person’s name. There is no personal connection between the man and the woman.
The next lines contain a statement from the woman. She is attempting to make the man move more quickly as says,
‘Come bootie shine up.’
This word “boetie’ is a word from Afrikaans, a language spoken predominantly in South Africa, that means “little brother.” It is not a compliment or a term of endearment. It is meant as a diminutive nickname. She thinks he is worth less than she is.
The man eventually does what she asks with “quivering smile” on his face. He is attempting to remain in good humour but this payment is a very big deal to him.
— with a quivering smile.
‘Gosh, more than half his wages;
they walked across the crowded street
into a butchery.
In the next section of lines, the speaker tries to make herself feel better about the transaction she just participated in. She comforts herself by saying “Gosh…/ I didn’t force it / on him.” This statement is in regards to the liquor that he likely purchased from her establishment. She did not force him to drink or make him pay “half his wages.”
While this statement from the “shebeen queen” is dismissive in nature, it does allow some insight into the world she is living in. Her life is one seemingly consumed by gaining wealth while those around her, like her patrons, come to her for relief from their real lives. They seek out escape, no matter the cost. On the other hand, this statement regarding wages also hints at the fact that the man never had much money to begin with.
In the final lines of this section, the main character pockets the money she was given. It goes into her “fat purse,” heavy with payments from other debtors and she walks…
across the crowded street
Into a butchery.
She is heading off into her own life to use the money in whatever way she sees fit.
When they whisked out
of her tight shopper: a broiler
In the final five lines of the poem, the speaker concludes her outing. She has collected the last of the money she needed and gone over to the “butcher shop.” The man working there emerges from the back with a “plastic bag,” within this is “fowl head’s and feet.” This bird represents consumerism which is evident on every level of society and is only clearer in the next lines.
In the final line of the poem, the speaker pulls “a broiler” out of her belongings. She is ready to cook it right then and there. This adds to the image of a consumerist culture. Just as the man was unable to stop drinking, she is unable to stop spending.