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ONCE UPON A TIME (A POEM) BY GABRIEL OKARA

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,

Gabriel Okara
Gabriel Okara
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 (born Gabriel Imomotimi Okara on 24 April 1921) was a Nigerian poet and a novelist who was born in Bumoundi in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Nigeria.  His most famous works include: The Voice(fiction, 1964), The Fisherman’s Invocation (poetry, 1978), The Dreamer, His Vision (poetry, 2005) and An Adventure to Juju Island (children poetry, 1992). Okara is a widely celebrated writer, especially for his poetry and his awards include: Best All-Round Entry In Poetry at the Nigerian Festival of Arts (‘The Call of the River Nun’, 1953), Commonwealth Poetry Prize, for The Fisherman’s Invocation (1979), NLNG Prize, for The Dreamer, His Vision (2005) and Pan African Writers’ Association Honorary Membership Award (2009). He died on Monday 25th March 2019 aged 97 [Source: Wikipedia].

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I am a member of the WRR editorial team.

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