Saturday, 21 April 2012

Once Upon a Time

I stumbled across this beautiful poem on the internet by the Nigerian poet called Gabriel Okara. His book, 'The Voice,' has gone straight onto my to be read list. Anyways, here's the poem.

Once Upon a Time
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 – homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, 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.
Gabriel Okara


  1. aah this poem make me homesick, makes me miss sincere joviality. I first encountered Okara when I was about 5years old....he wrote this really lovely children's book 'The little snake and the little frog'...can't remember how the story went now, but the title stuck. I then re-discovered him a couple of years ago with 'the Voice', and that book became one of my favorites from the Nigerian classics.

  2. Oh cool. I'm definitely looking forward to reading The Voice now.

  3. Very interesting poem... very interesting


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