Telephone conversation – 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 changed 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?”

Button A*: Buttons which had to be pressed when using a telephone in a public booth. Such telephones are no longer in use.

Posted in Poetry Blog
One comment on “Telephone conversation – Wole Soyinka
  1. Profile photo of Felicity Hale says:

    At the beginning, the imagery used to describe an image the man has of the woman: “lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped”, from listening to her voice shows one that he thinks that she is, from a higher social class.
    Then when he hears her question regarding how dark he is, he is humiliated and angry. Showing how angry he is, he begins to see red everywhere- “Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered.” The imagery of the huge bus squelching the black tar is symbolic of how the dominant white community treats those belonging to the minor black one.

    In the beginning of the poem, the African says that he has to “self-confess” when he reveals his skin colour to the lady. The colour of his skin is something that he has no control over, and even if he did, it is not a sin to be dark skinned, so the fact that the man feels ashamed and sorry for this.

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