Poem: “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,

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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 Imomotimi Okara

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