ONCE UPON A TIME (POEM) BY GABRIEL OKARA
Gabriel Okara is an Aftrican poet. He was born in 1921 in Nigeria. He was educated at Government College, Umuahia. His parents were not rich. He worked as a book binder and later as an information officer at Enugu. He also wrote plays and features for broadcasting and became a poet of outstanding ability. His poems appeared regularly in Black Orpheus. He has also written a novel called Voice.
Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.
There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts:
but that's gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts:
while their left hands search
my empty pockets.
'Feel at home'! 'Come again':
they say, and when I come
again and feel
at home, once, twice,
there will be no thrice -
for then I find doors shut on me.
So I have learned many things, son.
I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses - home face,
office face, street face, host face,
cocktail face, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.
And I have learned too
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say, 'Goodbye',
when I mean 'Good-riddance';
to say ' Glad to meet you',
without being glad; and to say 'It's been
nice talking to you', after being bored.
But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want
to unlearn all these muting things.
Most of all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake's bare fangs !
So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you.