Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


Once Upon a Time


Gabriel Okara

(1921 )


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 5
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: 10
while their left hands search
my empty pockets.
‘Feel at home’! ‘Come again’:
they say, and when I come
again and feel 15
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 20
like dresses – homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.
And I have learned too 25
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’, 30
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 35
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, 40
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you.


"Once Upon a Time" Notes

Once Upon a Time: meanings 1) a long time ago, 2) never happened, a fairy tale; never upon a time; never real







Gabriel Okara
  • Michael J. C. Echeruo, "Gabriel Okara: A Poet and His Seasons" (1992)






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Last updated July 20, 2009