Illustration by Daniel Sinnathamby
‘The Fence’ is a poem written by Lenrie Peters (1 September 1932 – 28 May 2009), a Gambian surgeon, novelist, poet, and educationist.
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.
Lenrie Peters uses the technique of `cause-effect logic’ to structure his poem, ‘The Fence’. His scientific background and being a surgeon probably helped him adopt this method in crafting his poetry.
The title connotes indecisiveness, influenced by the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’, being undecided.
He outlines the process of this logic, which is akin to the ‘scientific method’. The perception of his circumstances, gathering information through his physical, emotional and moral senses, analysing the information to formulate key questions, exploring possible outcomes, and finally arriving at conclusions to inform a decision (`So there I lie’).
The poem is a narration (or ‘recording of method’) of this process, its result, and outcome.
The method includes:
He uses the information from his ‘perception of the world’ from his position in the present (‘there I lie’) defined by a certain set of circumstances. He describes these circumstances in the first four sections of his poem. He perceives these circumstances through his physical, and ‘moral’ or spiritual (‘soul bared’) senses.
In the fifth section, the one-sentence stanza explains how the intersections of the past and future, truth and untruth, and the indifferent passing of time affects him. Peters is totally vulnerable and exposed, with everything, including his soul bare and naked, confounded, and awed because he cannot adequately comprehend his circumstances.
In analysing the information and formulating key questions, we see Peters’ indecisiveness, the dilemma he faces in the questioning of real and imagined issues affecting human lives. He identifies intersections at which these contrasts meet. He expresses his observations and consequent feelings.
He analyses the coming together of the vague past and the future from his position in the present and explores the result of possible ‘nebulous hopes and aspirations’. Peters’ does not accept a man-made (or ‘artifice’) version of the certainty of the past. Being in the present (where the past and the future meet), he does not clearly ‘see’ the characteristics of the future with clarity. In reconciling the past with the future, he highlights a continuous conflict between what is true and not.
He observes people tell or profess untruths, especially if professing the truth will not be to their benefit. He highlights the fact these are the moments when ‘truth’ is essential. Peters himself confesses he faces these compromises, which erode morals.
He sees cold and unsympathetic time move forward, indifferent to feelings, truths, or untruths, and not influenced by these. The ‘body aging relentlessly’ characterizes the indifference of time. In futile efforts to influence time, he notes our ‘feeble mind’s summoning memories of the past. Perhaps to arrest time through re-living the past based on ‘vague memories’.
Peters is affected and assailed by the unending intersections of ‘contrasts’, of truth and lies, past and future, on his physical, emotional, and moral senses. This is something he has not felt before, an alien experience, unfamiliar (‘not been drinking, but feeling drunk’) which makes him stagger.
So, what conclusions does he arrive at to inform his decision-making?
The world has changed, but he has not found a valid reason for making a concurrent change. It is a moral dilemma. Does he do good for ‘expediency’ and move on, ignoring the need for the truth, and rationalizing this with man-made justification? Or does he stand resolute on a moral position, even if this results in personal detriment. He is undecided. (`There where the need for good, and “the doing good” conflict, there I lie.’)
He concludes doing the right thing may seem illogical, but there is a moral imperative for it.
This conclusion does not help him. He is indecisive, ‘on the fence’.
The outcome is Peters’ decision is to stay ‘irresolute’ (‘So there I lie’).
Daniel Sinnathamby is a humanitarian and development professional with more than 30 years of strategic leadership, organizational development, and program management experience with international humanitarian and development agencies and networks. He has influenced program delivery in more than 28 countries in Asia and Africa. He authored this piece in 2017, at Colombo, Sri Lanka. This piece was originally published on Creative Cafe.