An Analysis of Gabriel Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’

Gabriel Imomotim Gbaingbain Okara was a Nigerian poet and novelist born on the 24th of April, 1921 and died on the 25th of March, 2019. Okara is best known for his poems like ‘Piano and Drums’ and ‘The Call of the River Nun’. His 1964 novel, The Voice, has a quest motif and interrogates the maladies of a postcolonial society. Most of Okara’s works are concerned with the theme of cultural shock or culture clash. Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ is one of the poems found in the collection The Fisherman’s Invocation published in 1978 by Heinemann. The poem decries the insincerity that characterises social relations in adult life and modern societies that have been divorced from traditional communities and their values.

Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ can be read as a narrative poem, a dramatic monologue and a didactive poem. It is a narrative poem because it tells a story. It is a dramatic monologue because a single character’s voice is heard speaking throughout the poem. It is a didactive poem because it teaches moral lessons, especially that we should learn to be real or genuine like children, and not wallow in social pretensions which is an important theme in the poem.

Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ is a narrative poem which has two characters, a father and his son. The father is addressing the son throughout the poem on his observations about modern and adult life where social relations is marked by artificiality and insincerity. The poem also compares childhood to adulthood, seeing childhood as a preferred and ideal stage of human growth marked by sincerity, plainness and honesty. The persona even desires to return to childhood as a way of escaping the ills associated with adulthood and modern life. Thus, in this poem childhood is compared to Africa’s precolonial era which was rich in African culture and communal values while adulthood is compared to modern life which has brought a lot of dysfunctional realities to the people, especially the glaring lack of humanity which is a major theme in the poem.

Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ is organised in seven stanzas of varying number of lines. The poem has a total of 43 lines and are written in free verse. The stanzas are mostly written in run-on-lines. The first stanza of the poem has six lines and reads: ‘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.’

 In this stanza, the persona addresses his son, comparing the present to the past in terms of the marked changes observed in human relations and cultural values. The expression ‘once upon a time’ is a marker of the past and temporal difference, as well as an indicator of the narrative texture of the poem. The major poetic device deployed in this poem is contrast which helps the persona to compare contemporary dystopian cultural values to the ideal ones that were practised in the past. The persona uses the sincerity of human laughter to discourse the erosion and dislocation in human values and African cultural values. The expression ‘they used to laugh with their hearts’ refers to the past when people were known for their sincerity in human relations. ‘Hearts’ is symbolic in the poem because it does not only denote the centre of human thought but also connotes the truth or reality. The same interpretation applies to ‘eyes’ because eyes are among the readable organs of the human body. This means that we can discern people’s emotions and thought just by looking into their eyes.

To laugh with one’s teeth denotes false and insincere laughter. The expression ‘ice-block-cold eyes’ denotes lack of humanity and reminds one of how the eyes of apartheid police are described in Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night. The expression ‘search behind my shadow’ connotes backstabbing, plotting and scheming.

The second stanza of Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ has six lines and reads: ‘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.’

In this stanza, the poet uses handshake to describe the marked change that he has observed in human values. Handshake is a form of greeting that cuts across many cultures in the world. The persona tells the son that in the past, people were sincere with their greetings, but that they now ‘shake hands without hearts’, meaning that most handshakes in contemporary cultures are without human warmth and sincerity. The same people who shake your hands might be trying to hurt or harm you as depicted in the stanza where the persona is shaken with a right hand while the left hand searches the pocket. The stanza is rich in imagery and symbols. The imagery is mostly kinetic and visual and they add to the drama in the poem while the action words in the poem are symbolic of the nature of social interactions noticed among people in society. The expression ‘my empty pockets’ implies the persona’s state of penury but which does not deter the greed of his neighbour depicted as heartless for trying to take from a poor person.

The third stanza of Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ has six lines and reads: ‘“Feel at home!” “Come again”;/they say, and when I come/and feel/at home, once, twice,/there will be no thrice – /for then I find doors shut on me’.

The theme of insincerity in social relations is sustained in this stanza. This time the poet’s persona is talking about the lack of sincerity in people’s words, whereby people mean exactly the opposite of what they say. In the stanza the persona is dramatising through direct speech the seemingly hospitable words of the host asking his guest to feel free to call again at the house. Thinking that the host is sincere, the guest calls at the house twice but on the third time, he is bounced: ‘I find doors shut on me’. This incident reminds one of the popular saying that the art of being a good guest is to know when to leave and that a poor person has no friends. All that the poet demonstrates in this stanza is that people are no longer sincere with their words as they used to be in the past.

The fourth stanza of Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ has six lines and reads: ‘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.’

The persona tells his son that his experience with modern culture has taught him to condition his attitude to suit the various social demands of society depending on where he finds himself. This kind of artificiality in social relations was noted among the 18th and 19th centuries upper class members of the English society portrayed in novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The poet seems to be indirectly stating that this type of attitude to social relations is anti-communal and is alien to Africa, hence a cultural importation from the West. We know this through the mention of modern spaces and objects like office, cocktail and portrait.

This stanza indicates that the persona is affected by the artificial and fake life in his environment and he has learned to do in Rome as the Romans as a survival strategy. The expression ‘wear many faces like dresses’ is a simile that metaphorises false personality traits marked by chameleoning or changing one’s attitude depending on the social context. The expression ‘conforming smiles’ implies a type of smile that is not genuine but only shown to smoothen social relations. In other words, the smile does not come from the heart. Simile is seen in the expression ‘like a fixed portrait smile’ which depicts the inhuman nature of this kind of social relations. It reminds us of the portrait discoursed in Robert Browning’s poem, ‘My Last Duchess’.

The fifth stanza of Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ has eight lines and reads: ‘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’.

This stanza reports on how the persona has adapted to the fake life he has observed in his surrounding and speaks to how the environment exerts a tremendous amount of influence on the individual. The persona has become exactly like the people he interacts with in society, especially in saying words that they do not mean or speaking in opposites. The use of direct speeches in the stanza adds to the dramatic quality of the poem.

The penultimate stanza of the poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ has seven lines which reads: ‘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!’

The persona expresses the desire to be like his son, that is, to return to childhood stage, which is a stage of innocence. It is apparent that the persona is sick and tired of living a life of social hypocrisy and artificiality. He is uncomfortable with such a life because it is inhuman and wants to change to being real like a child. The idea of returning to the stage of innocence equally connotes taking African society back to its precolonial stage when communal values were practised.  For the persona, having reflected on his life, he feels that his moral life is monstrous and his humanity questioned which is seen in how his teeth looks ‘like a snake’s bare fangs’ when he laughs in the mirror. Looking at the mirror symbolises self-reflection while the appearance of a snake’s fangs depicts the loss of humanity in the man. The mention of snake also signals the theme of deception in the poem.

The final stanza is a quatrain and reads: ‘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 this stanza, the persona makes us understand that we can learn from the innocence of children. In a world surrounded by fake people and fake life, the persona turns to his child to teach him the art of being human again. The expression ‘once upon a time’ constitutes a repetition in the poem as it was first mentioned in the first stanza.

Overall, the poem underscores the importance of imbibing children’s innocence in our social relations. We can then safely say that Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ expresses the ideology of infantism, a theory proposed by Eyoh Etim, which urges adults to view life from the perspective of children. The poem decries insincerity in human social relations, maintaining that taking a leaf from children and their innocence is a veritable way out of the problem of social artificiality.  

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