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?”
This is a poem about an African’s search for an apartment in colour conscious Britain. Having initially studied at Ibadan, Soyinka moved to the University of Leeds where he later got a doctorate. He spent six years in England and was a dramaturges at the Royal Court Theatre in London. As such he was reasonably well versed with its cultural life and this familiarity is evident in the poem. The speaker tells us about a telephone conversation regarding a property that he intends to rent from a white landlady.
Technique in ‘Telephone Conversation’ is to allow the bantering surface tone to lightly spread over the graver implications underneath.
Without a physical interface, through something as impersonal as the telephone, the speaker is able to strip a faceless landlady of all hypocrisy inculcated by “good breeding”. At the same time, his own feelings of shame, even humiliation are exposed although he covers them up with his wit, his tremendous command over language and imagery and even manages to strike a blow at the lady’s imagined sense of propriety by talking of his “raven black” bottom.
He begins in a seemingly objective, levelheaded way, judging the location and price of the property. The advantage was that the landlady said she stayed off the premises. In other words, she would not be there to interfere with or comment upon the author’s use of the property. So the speaker being a self-respecting man, thought he would let her know he was African. He knows he is living in a racially conscious society where colour prejudice is rampant. As is mentioned earlier in the material black-white confrontation in the west has proved to be the bitterest, most tortuous and most prolonged racial confrontation. And the most visible physical marker of this difference is colour. And colour is what almost all black writing is about. The speaker here is a victim because of his colour. Colour is the man, so to say for the white landlady. His humiliation has its origin in his being a black (no matter light or dark). When he says, “I hate a wasted journey”, he means that he doesn’t wish to wait till the last moment for her to see that he is African and then find excuses for sending him away. His announcement is met with silence, and silence, they say, can speak louder than words. That her genteel status had caused her silence is powerfully conveyed by the speaker’s observation that silence can be a substitute for an unpleasant or unpremeditated response ;”silenced transmission of pressurized good breeding”. When she does speak, she wishes to know how dark he is or rather, how light complexioned or how dark.
The idea of the colour of one’s skin being put into a slot A or B or whatever robs one of the feeling of the richness of human personality. In these days of power dressing and make- up, we are all aware of the variety of inputs that make one’s skin colour and tone what it is. In fact, it might be difficult to find two equally, identically, fair or dark persons. The effacement of personality is emphasized further by the phrase, “hide and speak”, which is exactly what a telephone user does. He or she is not visible to the listener. And in the case of a public telephone booth, it is literally a cabin out of which one talks. The repeated use of “red” is significant. It could refer to anger or embarrassment.
But don’t forget that the lady is upper class. After the initial silence, she speaks; her query is clinical and insensitive. And the speaker’s response, describing his skin colour as West Africa Sepia, silences her for the second time. This time he imagines that she is mentally scanning the entire range of possible human complexions. Spectroscopic is derived from spectrum meaning range. We know that even among fair people and among the blacks there are varied shades of complexion. The lighter the complexion, the better a coloured person feels. And when the white woman can’t seem to locate “West Africa Sepia” she has to ask.
Of course, the poet’s outburst is stunning and has a sardonic humour to it. Talking of his face, his palms the soles of his feet, he goes on to say that his bottom is “raven black”. Of course, she slams the receiver. The poet can almost feel it about his ears and concludes with a befittingly insulting “wouldn’t you rather/ See for yourself.”