Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Telephone Conversation

It seems that since it was written, almost every Nigerian child has been made to study Soyinka's 1959 poem, the Telephone Conversation, and remembers the experience fondly. Non-Nigerians may not quite realise how important this poem is in Nigerian consciousness. The YouTube clip is slightly artless, but at least it introduces the poem to the poem-averse. Better to read the real thing though:

Telephone Conversation
by Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
"I hate a wasted journey—I am African."
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
"HOW DARK?" . . . I had not misheard . . . "ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?" Button B, Button A.* Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis--
"ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?" Revelation came.
"You mean--like plain or milk chocolate?"
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. "West African sepia"--and as afterthought,
"Down in my passport." Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. "WHAT'S THAT?" conceding
"DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." "Like brunette."
"THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?" "Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!"--sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?"


Anonymous,  10:15 am  

You may not know this poem Jeremy, I was introduced to it in England on my O'Levels Literature course

kiibaati 11:59 am  

I liked this so much, I think I'll try and repost it.

kinnareads 3:06 pm  

Ah, you've made my day Jeremy. Thanks. I forget when I first read this. Certainly wasn't in school. I finished high school in Harare in the late eighties. This would have been too much for my school ;). I don't think that it's thought in Ghana either. Pity.

Myne Whitman 5:38 pm  

Certainly not every Nigerian child. Maybe the few who choose literature in senior secondary school. Great poem though, one of the most accessible of Soyinka's works.

Anonymous,  1:02 pm  

Thanks for introducing this poem to the poem-averse..
never heard of this. Born after 1959, schooled in Nigeria and abroad..

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