The poet, Lenrie Peters was born (1st September 1932) Lenrie Leopold Wilfred Peters in Gambia to a Sierra Leonean Creole of West Indian or black American origin and a Gambian Creole mother of Sierra Leonean Creole origins. He schooled in Sierra Leone where he gained his Higher School certificates and then went on to a BSc. from Trinity College, Cambridge. He was awarded a Medical and Surgery diploma from Cambridge in 1959 and then he worked for the BBC on their Africa programmes from 1955 to 1968.
At Cambridge, Peters baptised himself in Pan-Africanist politics and became the president of the African Students’ Union. He also started work on his only novel, The Second Round, which he later published in 1965. Among other medical and professional associations including the Commonwealth Writers Prize Selection Committee 1996 and the Africa Region of the Commonwealth Prize for fiction, judge 1995, he served as the head of the West African Examinations Council from 1985 to 1991.
Peters is considered one of the most original voices of modern African poetry. He is a member of the African founding generation writing in English and has shown extensive pan-Africanism in his three volumes of poetry although his single novel received critique as being more British, accusing of African cultural decline and less African overall. His poetry was mixed with medical terms sometimes and his later works were angrier at the state of Africa than his first volume of poetry.
Peters passed away in 2009.
There where the dim past and future mingle
their nebulous hopes and aspirations
there I lie.
There where truth and untruth struggle
in endless and bloody combat,
there I lie.
There where time moves forwards and backwards
with not one moment’s pause for sighing,
there I lie.
There where the body ages relentlessly
and only the feeble mind can wander back
there I lie in open-souled amazement
There where all the opposites arrive
to plague the inner senses, but do not fuse,
I hold my head; and then contrive
to stop the constant motion.
my head goes round and round,
but I have not been drinking;
I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger
It seems the world has changed her garment.
but it is I who have not crossed the fence,
So there I lie.
There where the need for good
and “the doing good” conflict,
there I lie.
In the whole length of the poem, Peters describes conflicting scenes or instances and his indecision on them all. In fact, the title of the poem alludes to the English expression ‘Sitting on the fence’ which most surely supplied the inspiration.
In the first verse, he talks about ‘the dim past and future’ and makes it apparent that he lies at the mingling point of their ‘hopes and aspirations’. He uses two words that make emphasise a general sense of uncertainty – ‘dim’ and ‘nebulous’. He ends the stanza with a crisp ‘there I lie’. He has plunged himself in the middle of the confusion.
In the next stanza, he lies at the place where ‘truth and untruth struggle’. He uses the word ‘untruth’ because it would create an unintended pun if he says ‘truth and lie’. But for us the readers, we can extrapolate this idea to affect the last line of the stanza where he says ‘there I lie’. The pun is created without intention. He lies. What exactly does that mean? He is telling a lie or he is lying down at a point? The antagonism between truth and untruth here is referred to as a ‘combat’, both ‘bloody’ and ‘endless’. He may have made the right choice to abstain.
The next stanza draws a parallel between time moving forward and backwards with no stop. I have little idea what he means by time moving backwards but he may have used this to highlight the greater conflict that makes him decide to stay on The Fence. Time moves back, time moves forward. What can he do than stay aloof?
Now he personalizes the conflict and claims that it is like the body aging ‘relentlessly’ and only the ‘feeble mind’ can bring back memories of youth. His soul meanwhile is amazed.
In the fifth stanza, Peters tells us that he stands in a point where all the opposites meet. In that meeting, they confuse him and plague his inner senses. He cannot make a decision and his irresolution eats him up. He tries to control his spinning head, to find some sort of reason in the midst of all the confusion. He tells us ‘I have not been drinking’ but he goes on right afterwards to use words that churn up the thought of a drunk man – ‘I feel the buoyant waves; I stagger’. His supposed drunkenness should be coming from his many worries! He is drunk on his troubles. A look at the larger structure of the poem, written in a centred format, should give a picture of his confusion. The writing style mirrors the state of his mind as the sentences come and go.
The stanza that unlocks the meaning behind this poem is the sixth. Peters reveals that everything around him has changed. The world as he knew it is no more. ‘The world has changed her garment’ is his claim. But he tells us that it he who has not crossed the fence. The indecision comes from a conflict between his past and his present. The world as he knew it and the world as it is now. This conflict affects a lot of people today in its most nuanced form. Most vivid is the difference in a family where parents were born and raised in a far-away village and now are raising their children in a cyber-world. The conflict may be pronounced for a man who knows not how to use these gadgets and stares blankly as he is confronted with them. This may not be the best picture but it is a mirror enough of the kind of conflict that Peters draws our attention to. ‘So there I lie’, he concludes.
After explaining his conflict to us, Peters goes back in the last stanza to his complaining ways. I like to think that final stanzas should bring out more intensely what the poet is saying – the denouement. So in the middle of this stanza, Peters enlightens us. His whole misunderstanding with the world comes from the world’s noble intents for all things ‘good’ and the actual ‘doing good’. Many people know what is right, talk about what is right and advocate for what is right but never actually do what is right themselves. The need for good and the actual doing good! There he lies.
The poem is a brilliant piece. I wouldn’t call it melancholic or protestant. It reflects more of a mental junction than about anything to worry about. Strangely, I find it a bit humorous. A masterpiece it is.