This is a poem by the Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara, in which he laments the lost innocence of youth. In it he condemns the hypocrisy of adults – hemmed in and constrained by rules and conventions – adopting masks for different occasions: for lying, cheating and betraying – whereas childhood is portrayed as a time of honest laughter, and spontaneity.
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…
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