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.


20 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time (A Poem) by Gabriel Okara

  1. Oh! I remember this one. I’ve read it before, from my JSS3 English textbook… We discussed a lot about this particular poem. I remember we laughing to the teacher’s jokes….. Happy memories there were.

    Thank you sir…for this, as always.


    • Ah! It simply reminds us of the changing times… I find it amusing really, that my childhood, which is barely one score and some years ago is so different from the times now… Maybe we need to learn to laugh a whole lot more… Problem is even our children are born without the laughter in their soul… So, who will teach us?

      I wish I could hear some of the teacher’s jokes now, Salisu. I think most Literature teachers have a spark to them. Is it the reading that causes it for them?

      I am glad you enjoyed the poem. Have you seen the collection it is from? It is called ‘The Fisherman’s Invocation’. It was published in 1979. I chanced upon it in Ibadan at some point and I grabbed it very quickly. Lovely collection of verse.


  2. I love this insightful piece of poetry! The Poet really captured the changing times and tides! Gone are those good old days when all was as it oughta! Where did we go wrong?! Whatever happened to good natured folks?! Life is now, for the most part; smokes and mirrors! Life’s experiences has taught so many people to wear their hearts on their sleeves! There’s a proverb where I come from that translates as ‘Its the ones you love that you’re pretty sure ’bout; you don’t know for a fact, the identities of them that love you’! So, better safe than sorry init?! The days of innocence have gone right by and I doubt if they’ll ever return! These days, tact and diplomacy are the names given to those ‘certain sweetness’! Brashness,being blunt and down to earth, stand zero-chance, and originality’s been traded in for fakeness and paying lip service! Aondo help us all and deliver us from ourselves! Thanks for sharing Su’eddie, I like! LMAO!


    • They say the days go worse as they come but are they only similar in a way to what we had before? I like the poem too for its bluntness and how it shows us what we have become… Men, women, who laugh with our teeth and hide our hearts! Chai! May the heavens save us o! Walahi! But is there a way we can be different? Can we be true in all facets of life that we come across? Maybe…maybe not… But oh well, let’s do our best…

      Yemie mi, no be so?

      Liked by 1 person

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