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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

About the Poet: Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara (born April 21, 1921 in Bumodi, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet and novelist who may be pronounced as highly original and uninfluenced by other poets. He has been extremely successful in apprehending the moods, sights and sounds of Africa. His poems show great sensitivity, perceptive judgements and a tremendous energy. Okara also shows a concern on the topic of what happens when the ancient culture of Africa is faced with modern western culture.

Once Upon a Time Summary by Gabriel Okara

The poem “Once Upon A Time” written by Gabriel Okara illustrates the changes a father has seen in him throughout his life which have been influenced by the way society has changed.

In the first stanza, at the start of the poem Okara writes “they used to laugh with their hearts and… eyes; but now they only laugh with their teeth while their ice-block cold eyes search behind my shadow.” This phrase illustrates the change in the way people act showing that their laughs used to be genuine and heartfelt however now their attitudes have changed. The description of “laugh with their teeth” illustrates someone showing false interest. The dark imagery “ice-block cold eyes” which follows shows that there is no emotion or feeling in the action.

In the next stanza Okara describes how “they used to shake hands with their hearts” implying that the actions were genuine and were also symbolic of good intentions however “Now they shake hands without hearts while their left hands search my empty pockets.” This phrase illustrates that all good intentions have gone and how now it is every man for him. Everybody is only focusing on their own personal gain. The use of a metaphor emphasises how there is a lack of trust as everybody is trying to use each other.

Brief Note on the Poem:

Gabriel Okara’s Once Upon A Time is about the artificiality of relationships and manners prevailing in the present day world. The past, according to the poet, is better than the present; because there were love, sincerity and faithfulness in the past. Now that in the present, everything has changed. Hence the poet wants to relive the past.

Once upon a time, the people used to laugh with their hearts and eyes. That is, there was genuineness in what they said and did. But in the present, there is only outward ‘teeth laugh’ without understanding the speaker’s real self. The eyes are described as ‘ice block – cold’. The people have become money minded and naturally develop their relationships with the rich. Even when shaking hands with others, they are very artificial and hence mechanical.

Guests are no longer welcome these days. They are given a warm reception only once. If they visit their friends or relatives thrice or more number of days, the doors are shut on them. In this material and artificial world, the poet has learnt many things – especially wearing many faces like putting on many dresses. One has to have ‘home face’, ‘office face’, ‘cocktail face’ and so on. All are fixed just like the portrait smile. As this is the way of the world, the poet – cum – speaker has also learnt laughter with teeth; the art of saying‘goodbye’ when he means ‘Good riddance’; ‘Glad to meet you’ when he is not glad; and ‘Nice talking to you’ when bored.

The poet wants to be like his son with all the exemplary conduct. He himself becomes the victim of the present showing ‘the fangs of a snake’. Towards the end of the poem, the poet appeals to his son to show him how to smile wholeheartedly. Desire to relive the past is nothing but a yearning for the innocence, faithfulness and sincerity. The poem is written as though a father were talking to his son.