Robert L(ouis) Peters Essay - Critical Essays

Peters, Robert L(ouis)

Peters, Robert L(ouis) 1924–

Peters is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16.)

Robert Peters pays enormous amounts of attention to detail; both in tearing from himself the stuff of which his poems are made, and in polishing that material to a clarity that is haunting. In Cool Zebras of Light he is, as usual, lean, clean, razor sharp.

Mechanically, the book is a simply written (and therein lies much of its beauty) exploration of the incredibly complex.

The poems are dynamic; rising, falling, modulating skillfully fully across a tense emotional range covering, primarily by way of pain, fear, and indecision, the extremes that are an unconditional part of a state we understand as "love."

In Peters' case it is gay love. Sexes here, though, are irrelevent. What matters is the slicing open of a message which concerns us (straight, gay, or otherwise) all. Peters works for, and achieves, an honest and in-depth exploration of that message. He does not exalt or alter it. He dissects it.

He accomplishes the task through the energy, tension, and fine cutting edges of his poems, and frequent prose entries put down much in the manner of a diary. The entries serve as stepping stones both into and out of the constantly changing moods of his poems. They are also sign posts; breaking the reader from the intensity of verse into a slower, more informative pace. (p. 58)

Raymond DiZazzo, in Margins (copyright © 1975 by Margins), March, 1975.

[The] chief gem in [Robert Peters'] droll diadem is irony—which apparently means that, despite the thought that it had been exhausted by the post-Eliot generation, irony has not lost its cutting edge (though it must be said that here the blade is pointed outward, toward history, and not toward themselves).

Peters is a debunker. On the attack he is fast and very sharp; his craft is that of the fox, not the syllabist. He delights in sardonic rhyme, usually within miniaturized couplets ("he looks a little dried/from the formaldehyde"), excels in tight portraits, counter-pastorales and outright fantasy. His "the explorer, or 'yes, h. rider haggard'" serves … the purposes of the personal imagination, and his rhyme is consistently clear and original…. (pp. 124-25)

Dave Wagner, in The Minnesota Review (© 1975 The Minnesota Review), Spring, 1975.

In the eight years since the appearance of "Songs for a Son"…, a book of gentle and fierce lyrics about the death of his child, Robert Peters has published seven books of poems with small presses. "The Gift to Be Simple"… announces his work to a larger audience just at the moment when Peters himself has found a larger subject than the vivid personal griefs and joys which inform his earlier poetry.

This is a book about the Shakers, or rather about Ann Lee, the mother church leader of the Shakers, born 1736, died 1784, and regarded by her followers as the female Christ. Imprisoned, stoned, and expelled from England because of her visions and utterances, Ann Lee sailed to New York in 1774 and founded the first Shaker settlement…. (p. 55)

Peters is a poet, not a Shaker heir or apologist, and this book is not a "historical narrative" nor a Shaker tract, but an evocative record made up of energetic lyrics moving toward and away from an established narrative core. The 100 poems, some written in first person, some in third person, represent the seamless meeting of Peters-spirit and Ann-spirit, the force of the poet's subject inviting him to experience a condition of faith which his own skeptical sensibility might not permit.

Yet, in spite of his temporary residence in the province of innocence, Peters does not indulge in sentimental simplicity. Cutting across the gift of quiet, plain, and joyous speech that shows itself in these poems is Peters's hard-edged and sensuous imagination, his tensed diction. Ann speaks in clipped declarative sentences and gets the benefit of Peters's succinctness and crisp, ringing language. The anguished visions of sexuality which inspired her chastity are translated by him into blazing particulars, restoring in its pure form the eroticism which she transmuted into the communal ceremonies of orgasmic trembling. Peters is drawn to depicting the violence that persecuted her gentleness, her recipes for self-mortification, the grotesque and intense visions of carnality she experienced, and by mingling holiness and hellishness he keeps the psychological range of the book much wider than its subject would suggest, avoiding the boring goodness that tends to dog poems about models of sanctity. Nevertheless, Ann's voice itself remains human and benign…. (p. 55)

[She] was no St. Teresa, and it remained for this contemporary poet to transcribe/create her visionary faculty in a variety of forms—songs, dances, alphabets, games, near-riddles—grounded in Shaker culture. Some simple, some complex, some as neatly joined and fitted as Shaker furniture, others open and loose, most of these poems are complete in themselves but some are mysterious, like fern fossils or leaf skeletons which map a past we are encouraged to invent. In all of them the utterances seem naturally Ann's, as if they are brushes of the wings of her voluminous spirituality. In "The Gift to Be Simple" a strange and moving marriage joins the household of poetry. (p. 56)

Lynn Sukenick, "A Blazing Chastity," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), October 20, 1975, pp. 55-6.

The poetic technique [in "The Gift To Be Simple: A Garland for Ann Lee"] is essentially simple though varied in style and affect. It bears comparison with John Berryman's "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" though it lacks Berryman's full energy and tension, and it mingles song, monologue and narrative with a minimum of documentary material. This is real poetry, alive and unpretentious. (p. 18)

M. L. Rosenthal, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 28, 1975.