About the Poet: Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara (born April 21, 1921 in Bumodi, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet and novelist who may be pronounced as highly original and uninfluenced by other poets. He has been extremely successful in apprehending the moods, sights and sounds of Africa. His poems show great sensitivity, perceptive judgements and a tremendous energy. Okara also shows a concern on the topic of what happens when the ancient culture of Africa is faced with modern western culture.
The poem “Once Upon A Time” written by Gabriel Okara illustrates the changes a father has seen in him throughout his life which have been influenced by the way society has changed.
In the first stanza, at the start of the poem, Okara writes “they used to laugh with their hearts and… eyes; but now they only laugh with their teeth while their ice-block cold eyes search behind my shadow.” This phrase illustrates the change in the way people act showing that their laughs used to be genuine and heartfelt however now their attitudes have changed. The description of “laugh with their teeth” illustrates someone showing false interest. The dark imagery “ice-block cold eyes” which follows shows that there is no emotion or feeling in the action.
In the next stanza, Okara describes how “they used to shake hands with their hearts” implying that the actions were genuine and were also symbolic of good intentions, however, “Now they shake hands without hearts while their left hands search my empty pockets.” This phrase illustrates that all good intentions have gone and how now it is every man for him. Everybody is only focusing on their own personal gain. The use of a metaphor emphasizes how there is a lack of trust as everybody is trying to use each other.
The phrase “empty pockets” could connote that he has been stripped of all genuine happiness and has been left feeling empty and alone.
In the next stanza,Okara shows the change in him as a man. “And I have learned, too,… to say ‘Goodbye’, when I mean ‘Good-riddance”. Here there is an evident shift in the stanza due to the fact that he is now talking about himself and how he too has learned to be false. This could imply that society has pressured him into changing in a negative way.
At the end of the poem, Okara confesses “I want to be what I used to be” showing instant regret and sadness at the choices he previously made. This piece of dialogue could suggest that he can only be himself around his son as he recognizes his younger self in his son, the self that was genuine and true, which had not yet been beaten down by society.