Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is an articulate exchange of words between a dark West African man and his British landlady that unrelenting verges on
the question of apartheid. The poet makes use of the most clear means to voice his views, through a telephone conversation, where there is immediate and natural exchange. It shows a one-to-one discussion between the two. The talk between a dark and a white individual at once shows universal overtones.
At the outset, the poet says that the price seemed reasonable and the location ‘indifferent’. Note that as a word, even though the word “indifferent” denotes being ‘unbiased’, it is a word with a somewhat negative words. However, as we come across the Landlady’s biased nature; the word ‘indifferent’ gains positive overtones, as it is better than
being impartial. The lady swears that she lived ‘off premises’.
Nevertheless, the very aspect of his colour is a conundrum to her, far from her promise to remain indifferent.[Feel Free To View The 13 ELEMENTS OF POETRY]
Nothing remains for the poet, he says, but confession. It gives a picture of him sitting in a confessional, when he hasn’t committed any crime….his crime is his colour, race and background, his feeling can’t change who he is. He tells the lady that he disdain a futile journey. Though his words connote more than he literally symbolizes. The poet seems to be weak of his life perturbed by racist prejudices. As he mentions his race, the lady is trapped with
silence, but a silence that speaks
volumes. A telephone is an instrument that primarily transmits voices, here it becomes a medium for silence also. The civilized world, has these silent powerful issues that need to be voiced.
Here, the silence echoes. It is a silence that is the consequence of her developed upbringing. However, her prejudices go beyond her to primitivism,
living in the fictitious narrow-mindedness of caste and colour. When the voice finally came, it was ‘lip-stick coated’,well made-up and diplomatic
to suit an affected atmosphere. The
inevitable question finally comes cross:”ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?”
The poet asks this question to clarify his thoughts. The question has two alternatives before him: dark or light; The truth or lies.
The first option would obviously shut off all doors to him. He then realizes that denying is not the solution, and decides to face the situation. The words: “Stench /Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak” signify the far nature of the questions rather than the
The colour ‘red’ in “Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered” forebode caution. The questions were too naked to be true. The speaker at last brings himself to
believe them. His response is very short: “You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?”. Her disinterested
approval of the question was like that of a clinical doctor made immune to human emotions through experience. Human pain and misery its own saturation point; after a certain point people tend to joke at their own agony. As the saying goes: Be a God, and laugh at Yourself. The speaker therefore begins enjoying the situation and confuses the lady on the other side. He asserts: “West African sepia”, to further confuse her.
Silence for spectroscopic Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged
her accent Hard on the mouthpiece.
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,
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears–“Madam,” I pleaded,
“wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”
The last lines verge on vulgarity, but simply out of outrage. The mixed feelings, the random and broken sentences, the lack of coherence of speech, the question-answer mode are all typical of a
telephone conversation that beats
more than it sounds.
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Moses Chibueze Opara aka Mr. Humility
(A contemporary poet and poetry analyst)