Posts Tagged ‘Lenrie Peters’

POET’S PROFILE

Peters

Peters

I discovered this poem on recommendation and I can tell you I’ve enjoyed reading it over and over again. It was written by the only Gambian poet I have reviewed so far on this blog. And the issues in the poem somehow reflect today’s changing scenes.

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.

THE FENCE
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.

REVIEW

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.

POET’S PROFILE

Peters

Peters

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.

We Have Come Home
We have come home
From the bloodless wars
With sunken hearts
Our booths full of pride-
From the true massacre of the soul
When we have asked
‘What does it cost
To be loved and left alone’

We have come home
Bringing the pledge
Which is written in rainbow colours
Across the sky-for burial
But is not the time
To lay wreaths
For yesterday’s crimes,
Night threatens
Time dissolves
And there is no acquaintance
With tomorrow

The gurgling drums
Echo the stars
The forest howls
And between the trees
The dark sun appears.

We have come home
When the dawn falters
Singing songs of other lands
The death march
Violating our ears
Knowing all our loves and tears
Determined by the spinning coin

We have come home
To the green foothills
To drink from the cup
Of warm and mellow birdsong
‘To the hot beaches
Where the boats go out to sea
Threshing the ocean’s harvest
And the hovering, plunging
Gliding gulls shower kisses on the waves

We have come home
Where through the lightening flash
And the thundering rain
The famine the drought,
The sudden spirit
Lingers on the road
Supporting the tortured remnants
of the flesh
That spirit which asks no favour
of the world
But to have dignity.

REVIEW

This poem holds so much imagery and so is loaded with so much meaning that if I intend to say everything there is about it, I’ll probably be writing a novel here. The poem is an excellent piece.

The first stanza is an announcement by Peters that some people he refers to as “We”, have come home and have come with questions from a war. I will attempt it this way: they came from a bloodless war (line 2) and this could have been the “war” of colonialism where slaves were exchanged for goods in places with no actual guns fired. This will give line 5 more meaning when he says they have returned from “the true massacre of the soul”, for what will be more demeaning to a man than the cheapening of his soul and the sale of that into slavery. If this is it, then Peters is talking about a return of some black people to their homeland. If this is true too, then it is morose for him to ask in the end of the stanza ‘What does it cost/ To be loved and left alone’. We may make further deductions from this question. The slaves cost gunpowder, wine and sugar. Lives were traded for this base offering and Peters will question this. How deep is the love that gave them away? Their return is with sunken hearts and only their booths (line 4) – inner enclosures of their beings- can reserve any pride. The pride is what they feel when Africans return home. But this time, the feelings are mixed, since pride and massacre cannot dwell in one soul and bode well. We read on.

Peters says that they bring with them ‘the pledge / Which is written in rainbow colours’ (line 10-11) for burial. Let’s go south to understand this: in comparison, South Africa is called a rainbow nation since it is a country that is bona fide home to all the different colours of people as the world can offer. Their dwelling together as co-owners makes them a rainbow people, representing oneness and diversity as with the colours of the rainbow. The rainbow is a symbol of equality. So why is Peters bringing home the pledge in rainbow colours for burial? Strange! That pledge may yet stand for the acceptance of black equality with white; which disparity held for centuries. If so, then Peters speaks grave matters and only a continued reading will bring us more understanding.

Suddenly he gives up!! ‘it is not the time /To lay wreaths /For yesterday’s crimes’ and Peters seems ready to forget the misbehaviours of his people who may have sold their kith out. His reasons are clear, that tomorrow doesn’t promise anything positive or otherwise, time is an alien and even night will not permit the slackening upon the midnight dreaming. Dreaming upon the wasted years. Drums may have welcomed them home but he calls their coherent African rhythm a gurgle (line 20), a bubbling sound, empty, confused, maybe hypocrite. But they echo the stars and may be a claim for hope. He brings in his Britishness unconsciously in lines 22-24 as he claims that the forest howls as the dark sun appears through the trees. A wolf arising with the full moon. But why a dark sun? Gloom!

He wanders on in lines 25-31. The dawn falters, morning brings no hope for them against a dark sun, their songs are alien, their march is of death; death of their real selves and Africanness and their loves and tears are as random as the spin of a coin. There is a pity here. Hopeless is the situation they have come to meet at home. The colonialists may be gone but the sun has not risen well on the morning of our independence as Africans. Mind that Peters has once claimed likeness to Alex Haley, the writer of the all-popular movie Roots: The Saga of an American Family, in which Haley mixes fact and fiction to trace his lineage to a West African village. This poem gains more significance now.
Their homecoming is to the natural Africa they left behind – mellow birdsong, hot beaches, boats going to sea for to thresh it of its fish, and the gulls. And though they see little that pleases them outside the natural scenery, they have come home. They have come home where the lightning flash and the thundering rain, the famine, the drought do not bring down the spirit of the man whose flesh is tortured beyond support but of his spirit. And the reason his spirit lives on is the hope of that eternal cry which Africans still cry today; the cry that rings louder above all else even to the unheeding ears of their own people who have made them suffer ill; to have dignity!!

Even his coming home is a reason for thought. The mastery of Peters! After all this, I don’t think I have exhausted the depth of meaning this poem has. I’m certain a couple tens more meanings may still attend it.