Peters, Lenrie (Leopold Wilfred)
PETERS, Lenrie (Leopold Wilfred)
Nationality: Gambian. Born: Bathurst (now Banjul), 1 September 1932. Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, 1953–56, B.A. (honors Science Tripos) 1955; University College Hospital, London, 1956–59, M.B. in 1959, B. Chir. Career: Surgical registrar, Northampton General Hospital, England, 1966–69; surgeon, Victoria Hospital, Gambia, 1969–72. Since 1972 surgeon in private practice, Banjul. Freelance broadcaster, BBC African and World Service, 1955–68. Fellow, Royal College of Surgeons, 1967, West African College of Surgeons, and International College of Surgeons, 1992. Chair, National Library Board, 1979–87, and Gambia College Board of Governors, 1979–87; trustee, 1985–88, and chair, 1988–91, West African Examinations Council; member, Research and Scholarship Committee International of Surgeons, 1995. Judge, African Region of the Commonwealth prize for fiction, 1995. Officer of the Republic of the Gambia. Address: Westfield Clinic, P.O. Box 142, Banjul, Gambia.
Poems. Ibadan, Nigeria, Mbari, 1964.
Satellites. London, Heinemann, 1967.
Katchikali. London, Heinemann, 1971.
Selected Poetry. London, Heinemann, 1981.
The Second Round. London, Heinemann, 1965.*
Manuscript Collection: School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Critical Studies: New West African Literature edited by Kolawole Ogungbesan, London, Heinemann, 1979; Understanding African Poetry by K.L. Goodwin, London, Heinemann, 1982; West African Poetry: A Critical History by Robert Frazer, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Lenrie Peters comments:
All poetry is a search, and mine is no exception. A search for the nature of human consciousness and of the universe—its joy and despair, its passion. Its sublime nobility and its degradation—the miracles of nature. A search for the meaning of existence and of man's setting within it. My poetry attempts a medley of song and has been at different times both the tear bowl and the chalice! But always with the ecstasy of hope rising out of gloom.* * *
The Gambian poet Lenrie Peters is one of the least classifiable of African poets. Although African themes and images abound in his work and there is a deep, continuing concern about the state and fate of modern Africa, he is formally the least African of his generation of writers. There is no traceable debt to the techniques of oral poetry and, with the rare exception of the abandoned Gambian fertility god in the title poem of Katchikali, no use of indigenous mythology. Peters writes in short, tight stanzaic structures and in slim free-verse paragraphs with sporadic rhymes, and though these appear to owe something to European modernism's dismantling of conventional metrics, they are in fact highly personal and original forms that have their own inherent and instinctive sense of structure. He is a cosmopolitan poet in both style and subject—"The universe is my book"—and includes in his work poems on international subjects in science, music, politics, evolution, and sports (there is a poem on the Chinese nuclear bomb and an elegy on Winston Churchill). His taut, densely packed poems, which always give an impression of space beyond the words on the page, cover the broad, universal spectrum of human experience. There are meditations on aging and death, the risks of love, and the loneliness of exile; painful mental dissections of sexual passion and of the failure of even the most extreme experiences to yield meaning; and expressions of personal crisis and public anger. As Peters is a specialist surgeon working in the frustrating conditions of third world squalor and deprivation, the last two subjects often coincide, as in the poem "Waking in the Night" (Katchikali), where the lack of electricity prevents the physician from saving a life.
Peters's early volume Satellites is aptly named, for there is a sense in these poems, first, of the tough-minded but sensitive poetdoctor's double alienation from the hub of fashionable literary activity and the harsh factual world of his profession, and, second and more precisely, of the writer orbiting his subject, always distanced and detached, never abandoned and immersed. The poet inhabits his own aloof mental space, beyond relationships: "We have lived as if in vacuum cylinders." Although Peters's work has a hard, crystalline clarity and is full of startling, incisive images, it is not the doctor's surgical precision so much as his unsentimental professional detachment, discouraging intimacy, that informs and pervades it. These are agonized, spectatorial poems, about the dispassionate observer's attitude to his experience and his desperation to confront its meaning rather than the experience itself. The poet-surgeon does not probe but surveys the human, urban, and natural anatomy of a strangely anonymous world, always with a sense of bewilderment and disorientation and often in sheer wonderment at its existence. But even the ultimate experiences defraud, hemmed in and fenced off from us as they are by conditions and disappointments. In "Watching Someone Die" even death, in whose mundane presence the doctor spends much of his time, becomes unimpressive—"Everything and nothing has happened"—and it is finally only "the changing of the tide at the boundary hour." There is no revelation or insight, no enlightenment or enhanced sensitivity, but, on the contrary, "reinforced brutality to life / a rugged cliff bloodstained / with the agonising rhythm of many heads." The probing of the surgeon's scalpel "at the cutting chaotic edge of things" becomes an inverted image, or negative, of the imaginative piercing that is the real goal of the poet's quest and a compensatory substitute for this other, more spiritual penetration. The success of the first serves as an index to the failure of the second. In two poignant poems from the next volume, "You Lie There Naked" and "You Talk to Me of Pain," the patient's physical pain comes to symbolize the mental anguish of the physician. Faced with the unknowable, the latter has no surgery to get him to the heart of an experience, to extract its meaning and remove the source of his perplexity. "Steel is impotent," and the anatomist remains remote, a satellite to his own experience, "this stranger with the scalpel from outer space."
Peters's moral and intellectual position is as shifting and slippery as his subject matter. Although he is distrustful of the intellect—"The mind / Is like the desert winds / Ploughing the empty spaces"—he is the most intellectual of African poets. Ideas dictate the shape of his narrow, minimalist verse structures and orchestrate his images, and his best poems achieve a tight concentration of thought, image, and sensation. He is also capable of highly speculative, philosophical poems, such as "On a Wet September Morning," a metaphysical disquisition on nature and evolution in which the poet's physical presence expands across the whole of space and time. Although he sometimes boils over in rage at the frustrations of underdevelopment and Africa's snail-paced progress, he frowns at the encroachments of advanced technology upon the spontaneity of life, its alienating, artificial packaging of experience, and reviles all blind, unconsidered kinds of "progress" that ruin more than they remedy. The art of the true healer (here Peters is more than a diagnostician of Africa's ills) maintains continuity with tradition: "It is I who carry your past / I forbid progress / and I who measure / out your future like a potion." The poems of private crisis and dilemma pick a tortured path between attitudes of docile resignation and barren resentment and between solidarity with the downcast and, disturbing this complacency, the fear that the comparative comfort of his own elitist position amounts to complicity with their exploiters. By contrast, the more public poems gathered in the "New Poems" section of Peters's Selected Poetry radiate confidence and certainty about what is needed for Africa's future.
In this collection Peters, ever an inveterate enemy of tribalism and nationalism, focuses on the problems of the continent at large. There is a ruthlessly honest poem on Soweto that does not spare comparable conditions in black African countries and some angry polemics that hold up the squalid realities of the rude village and venal metropolis against the spurious idealism of pan-Africanism and negritude. The prevailing themes are Africa's political disunity and instability, the social injustice and glaring underdevelopment, and the need for original ideas and self-reliance. These are prosy, oratorical poems that seem only partially to engage the poet's sensibility and imagination; the swift movement of images under the pressure of ideas, which is a compelling feature of the private poems, is here missing. Peters's gift is essentially a lyric one, developed out of firsthand experience. When he expands to public themes, his style slackens, the tight structures of thought unravel, and the delicacy and precision of his best poems are lost.