Once Upon a Time – 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.
The poem opens with the classical opening of fairy tales. By doing so the poet draws attention to the question of what is real and what is not so as well to the difference between appearance and reality. The entire poem is a nostalgic first person reflective monologue; a father/ an adult male talking to a son/ a younger male. The poetic persona is lamenting over ‘they’ losing their ability to laugh spontaneously with their entire being, not only with their teeth. A smile/laugh is said to be sincere and coming from the heart only if it reaches the person's eyes. Not only have ‘they’ lost their ability to laugh but also have become suspicious of those who are still able to laugh. ‘They’ are looking for possible ulterior motives for the laughter instead of joining in. ‘They’ do not seem to believe that a person might laugh without some evil intention hidden behind that laughter. Hence, “their ice-block-cold eyes/search behind [the poet’s] shadow. The tragedy is that ‘they’ used to be able to laugh with artless spontaneity and the poet is sad for them for their loss which they themselves seem to be unaware of.
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.
Not so long ago ‘they’ used to form genuine friendships easily. But now they are suspicious of the poetic persona with whom they shake hands and try to find possible motives for why he wants to be friends with them by going through his pockets. The poetic persona does not have anything to hide: his pockets are empty.
‘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.
‘They’ have become insincere in their hospitality, too. ‘They’ invite the poetic persona over to their houses but if he takes them up on their invitations more than twice he finds their doors shut. Hence, their hospitality is measured. Something has changed them. What could that be? If we were to reflect on this incident further, then we might come to the conclusion that ‘they’ must have lost their innocence as a result of the influence of their own adults. However, in my opinion suspicion and insincerity do not exist in a vacuum. They are not diseases one caches only when one becomes an adult. These negative traits must have their roots in some human experiences linked with survival. In other words suspicion and insincerity ‘they’ developed later in their lives may have been necessary skills they had to master in order to survive in a world where only the fittest survived. So, it could very well be traits we imbibe in incremental doses from their birth in the process of growing up. And once they have imbibed a certain amount of these qualities they cease to be children.
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.
Ultimately, the poetic persona gives in and learns to hide his true self behind masks: “homeface,
/officeface, streetface, hostface,/ cocktailface”. Moreover, he learns to smile insincere smiles in order to suit the occasion, not as an expression of his inner feelings. In doing so he loses something that is priceless and become robotic and insincere.
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.
The poetic persona too has learnt to be two-faced in his words as well as deeds in order to be one of ‘them’. Society could be an unforgiving place for those who do not conform. There is Ideological State Apparatus as well as the Repressive State Apparatus designed by those with power in societies in order to make sure that everyone complies with socially agreed upon norms and values. Swimming upstream (to be a nonconformist) takes a rare amount of courage which the poetic persona seems to lack.
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!
Finally, the poetic persona reveals the reason that has changed him: it is the process of socialization associated with growing up that has made him lose his innocence. As a grownup the poetic persona fears/repulsed by his own laughter which he compares to a baring of a snake’s fangs. His laughter has become something sinister instead of an expression of spontaneous joy. The tragedy is that even as a child the poetic persona had been aware of the difference between what was sincere and what was not. In order to survive, he had to learn to mimic the norms and values of his society. And by doing so he loses something special in him – spontaneity and artlessness. Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile promotes the idea of ‘primal innocence’ or artlessness and spontaneity as something that is inherent in human beings at birth that we lose as a result of the compromises we have to make in order to be social animals. When one is conscious of losing something that is of priceless value such as one’s innocence that would certainly cause much pain. And that is surely the cause of the pain the poetic persona is expressing in this poem. Yet, Plato in his Republic and Golding in his The Lord of the Flies see this in another way. They find that children who are not governed by socialization mechanisms revert to their 'basic nature' (which, according to Freud, is governed by Id, the animal-like part of the human psyche) causing death and destruction to themselves and others around them.
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.
In considering other applications of the poem, if we are to consider childhood as a state of edenic innocence, the situation can be applied to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. They lost their innocence as a result of their craving for forbidden knowledge and spent the rest of their lives trying to get back to the lost Eden. In that sense, the son the poet is appealing to could the Son of the Holy Trinity of the Christian Faith who said to have come to this world to cleanse the mankind of their corruptness and return them to the lost Eden where they would resume their child-like innocence and live in a state of grace.
Similarly, some colonizers considered their colonies as lost Edens untouched by the corruptible influences of so-called civilized western world and had gone 'native'. Still, their inherently cultural imperialistic point of view made them assume the role of a patriarch towards the very natives they were attempting to emulate. Consequently, this could be an appeal of such a person who had lost his innocence to someone who still possessed it. There is quite a sizable amount of literature illustrating our desire to return to a primal innocent state: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Saki’s short stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book are a few of them. Okara, being native of a former colony would be aware of such desires harboured by his country's former Great White Masters.