Telephone Conversation

Wole Soyinka, ‘Telephone Conversation’
in Modern Poetry from Africa
edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier
(London: Penguin, 1963)

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.

Wole Soyinka’s well-known poem recounts what the title reveals to be a depressingly routine experience. Notwithstanding the telephone’s blindness, the device is still used to police skin colour—despite any tenor of ‘good-breeding’ suggested by the voice. The poem thus reveals how the phone can be used to reinforce racial inequalities with regard to basic needs like housing. The etiquette of the telephone (the distance, relative anonymity, ‘ill-mannered silence’, its game of ‘hide and speak’) protects the landlady from confronting the racial prejudice she casually reinforces. The poem’s clipped phrasing corresponds with the (inevitably) frustrating unfolding of the conversation, and the uniquely awkward nature of impersonal telephone calls. This culminates in a witty, revelatory plea for the addressee to really ‘see’ the poem’s subject, to reflect on the acute absurdity of such distinctions (‘Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see / The rest of me’), not to mention their part in systemic violence.

by Sam Buchan-Watts