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Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka (Poets of West Africa w/s)

From Eumolpus-
(To introduce this workshop, I though it might be good to start with a famous poem (I think!) by Soyinka, first African to win the Nobel Prize and legendary for 50 years. I have reproduced the poem as written.
Craft-wise, what I like about this poem is the easy access to the poem through a dramatic incident,
but the poet manages to turn what would be a short story/prose poem into a "poem". It has some local language slang, such as "Considerate she was, varying the emphasis"..The poem builds nicely, with humor and satire, and has leaves the reader cheering for the poet. I would love to know if this poem is well known! and your take of it.)

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 dumbfoundment 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 accent 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 chaged 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 blonde. 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?'

Editing stage: 

Comments

the poem is well known in
the poem is well known in Nigeria, and I had read it twice before now.
the poem to me is a little glimpse of the behavior of the Yoruba people, The title reveals the fact that two people are talking on the phone, so the beginning of the poem is on a positive note: The man is searching for a house and the landlady has named a considerable price, and the area where it is located is an impartial and not racially prejudiced. Also the man could enjoy his privacy as the land lady does not live under the same roof. The African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past, for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time traveling there if she’s going to refuse him on that bounds.
There is silence at the other end; a silence which the black man thinks is the reluctant result of an inbred sense of politeness. However, he is wrong because when she speaks again, she disregards all formalities and asks him to explain how dark he is. The man first thinks he has misheard but then realizes that that is not true as she repeats her question with a varying emphasis. Feeling as if he has just been reduced to the status of a machine, similar to the telephone in front of him, and asked to choose which button he is, the man is so disgusted that he can literally smell the stench coming from her deceptive words and see red everywhere around him. Ironically he is the one who is ashamed by the tense and awkward silence which follows, and asks for clarification thinking sarcastically that the lady was really helpful by giving him options to choose from. He suddenly understands what she is trying to ask, and repeats her question to her stating if she would like him to compare himself with chocolate, dark or light? She dispassionately answers and his thoughts change as he describes himself as a West African Sepia as it says in his passport. The lady remains quiet for a while, not wanting to admit to her ignorance, but then she gives in to curiosity and asks what that is. He replies that it is similar to brunette and she immediately clarifies that that’s dark.
Now the man has had enough of her insensitiveness. He disregards all constraints of formality and mocks her outright, saying that he isn’t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands are completely white, but he is foolish enough to sit on his bottom so it has been rubbed black due to friction. But as he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, he struggles one last time to make her reconsider, pleading her to at least see for herself; only to have the phone slammed on him.

cheers,
Jess
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