The oppressive boot [and] the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it*

Every now and then I get a distress call from this Echh Aar Lady — “Edit this for me,  will you?” / “Does this mail read OK?” And I oblige, for she’s a friend from an earlier work life. So last week she called and, as usual, she had a crisis. She had to rustle up some training material on telephone etiquette and could I help?

I protested. Not my cup of filtered coffee! Not with my backwoodsy telephone skills —monosyllabic, brusque. She should know! But she persisted. Just a small capsule for a group of fresh-out-of-college,  wet-behind-the-ears graduates given the unpleasant job of handling customer complaints over telephone. Said customers being irate, racially abusive and Anglo-American. 

I was incensed: “These kids need therapy to handle racist abuse, N. And you think popping a smart capsule of inane pleasantries and pseudo-Americanisms will do the trick?” 

“Just give me something I can use,” she pleaded. “I’ll build the material around it.”  

So I gave her this:

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 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?”

 

(Source: Modern Poetry from Africa, Penguin 1963.)

Of course she had no use for it, and lost no time in telling me so. I imagine she’d have binned it after a cursory, mystified glance. I made a half-hearted attempt to make her see the exquisite irony in the poem — the refinement of the so-called savage and the coarseness of the so-called civilized. I could have saved my breath.

I do understand that a great many people dislike, and have no use for, poetry because they imagine it is always worrying about the eternal verities.  I, too, have tin ears for a lot of “poetry.” It is futile to speak of its “uses” to up the ante on poetry. As Auden and Garrett put it:

Those who try to put poetry on a pedestal only succeed in putting it on the shelf. . . . Poetry is no better or worse than human nature. It is profound and shallow, sophisticated and naïve, dull and witty, bawdy and chaste in turn.

(W.H. Auden and J. Garrett. The Poet’s Tongue, Bell.)

 

And when you read poems like Soyinka’s, all those positive adjectives seem justified, don’t they?

 

( * the dominant theme of  Soyinka’s work; his words)

 

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8 Comments »

  1. Space Bar said

    What a fantastic poem! Thank you – will save this one.

  2. asmokescreen said

    Thanks for the visit, Space Bar!

  3. Prasanth said

    🙂
    A lovely poem(although slightly tainted by the memory of having had it taught to me in 10 std). Your act of referring it to your ex-colleague is, if I may say, almost as poetic 😛 One can imagine the poor woman’s state.

    That said, the state of appreciation of poetry is pretty sad even among the ‘educated’ crowd(English graduates, myself included specifically). There are a few champions, praised by one and all and the rest is a vast unknown world viewed with a bit of fear and bit of suspicion(occasionaly the exotic allure of the unknown 🙂

  4. Yes, Prasanth, sad but true.

  5. Prasanth:

    “Poor woman’s state?” Excusez moi, no sympathy for me?!!

  6. Quirky Indian said

    Bherry bherry naiis, indid.

    And how did the Echh Aar lady react?

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  7. QI:

    Danke.

    React? The Lady reads this blog. So, shush!! 🙂

  8. apu said

    Been meaning to comment on this for some time. It’s unfortunate that all the poetry we learn in school is about daffodils and some solitary reaper and so on, very little touching on any modern life at all. Poetry like this makes you realise how relevant it can be.

    I liked particularly the lines
    “….till truthfulness clanged her accent
    Hard on the mouthpiece…”
    That really brought out the hypocrisy of so-called civilized people.

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