Natal Command

By Peter Sacks b. 1950 Peter Sacks
Cross-hatchings, palm and rain,
    clapboard faded
to the grain, half-shutters
    open to old vines and mangroves

draining their own shadows;
    recollecting what the body knows
suspended between coral
    and shifting images of cloud ...

       After death,
       after the knowledge
       of death,
       his death,

       his face, unwrapped,
       already yellowed,
       papery, recovered
       with a small white cloth

       then lowered away
       and shut to the earth;

       So pierced,
       so mute,
       these words

       Not this.

The rain had gone. I swam against the current,
harnessed by water till I turned and swung
out with the tide, shouldering deep

into a rhythm of my own, long strokes
pulled under the body and returning
past the glinting crease in which I breathed,

the sea half-woken like another body
bedded into sheer transparency,
the outer reaches granular with light.

Comebacks. Chains of radiance.
Far more than meet the eye.

What do they meet then, intimate
but otherworldly, mimicking the world?

    I looked back at the land’s thin edge,
pines along the shoreline near a fort

where cannons rust, mouths left open among
thistleweed around the dozing moat.

Far back among fallen needles, pigeons shuffle
through shade, their feathers iris underlight,
soft flares bob the dark.

                                       The land had disappeared.
The sun had followed it. From either wrist,
half-mingled with my breath into the night,

a trail of ungloved phosphor travelled back.

Sounds too have their surfaces:

the mortal frame, particles of blood
revolve as in a sort of heaven where

breath moves through us as an unseen light;
but when the marrow bonds are parted they in turn
set loose what has been called the soul ...

the spill and friction
glancing like a coin within a sea of coins;

my left hand pulls through as I breathe,
the right recovers, elbow in the air,

until the will behind the will strikes—
pike-flash in a swerving current,
predatory bird.

    After death—his voice,
    that constellation
    shining out—

    his face, his eyes—

    as each had been, now
    gone. Or going on,
    a ghost—another way

A slanting chop.
                              Erratic gasps
between thick chunks of water

crowded through the night.

The unclogged screw
    of a propellor

ringing into fossil-drillings,

detonantions, manacles—

          (the jangled
       monkey-chain above his bed;

    he clung with both hands
       to the small trapese,
    his lower body paralyzed
       for months ...

                        not this)—

       far larger than myself,
          a shambling hulk,

            tentacular, a pulpy
       helmet, lantern eyes,
          the huge mouth gorging,

         undigested corpses
             bulging in the belly wall.
       I thrashed to break free

             but the ocean held me,
       and a slap of water broke
          across my mouth.

    5.Natal Command
Troughs of recollection; hands now two numb sponges,
and a cold ache pressed into the spine.

A conscript leaning on my rifle, I stood guard for hours
staring through wire toward the Blue Waters Hotel:

an all-night crew, unreal, flourescent
polished the lobby floors; high in a yellow cell

black shadows rippled on drapes until the lights went out.
The sentry’s solitude. The muffled crump of surf

beyond the esplanade; the ocean shifting
to an onshore drowse of salt over the palm trees and camp.

A palm rat slithers through rotten fronds.
The mind floats imageless.

Then back to footage of commandos stalking a sentry
from behind—the pounce, a hand clamped hard

over the mouth, the blade thrust in, the sagging weight set down,
a clutch to save the helmet as it drops to gravel, quick

hand signals to shadows hunched behind. One night while
still on guard I crept into an empty tent and fell asleep.

The duty sergeant found me—legs stuck out beneath the flap.
He held my rifle. Prodded the bayonet at my spine,

“Keep sleeping and they’ll kill us all,” he whispered
as the bayonet found the nerve, pain jolting

to my hands and feet.His boot beside the blade
he pumped me hard against the ground then let me up,

my limbs still trembling, the uniform stuck bloody to my back.

                   When does it begin,
submission sliding into savagery—
the reptile mind among its enemies

revenged and striking—bayonet
driven deep into the bag,

the rifle stock slammed home,
the scream in my own mouth?

                     A guard dog chained
against the fence.
The collar chokes it back.

When I was eight our Latin master had us stand beside him
while he marked our work. The desk concealed us below

the waist and he’d reach up our shorts to run his hand
along the inside of our thighs. Shift or step away

he’d growl “Stand still!” or “Pay attention, boy!”
as if his fondling were the lesson.

Sacks-and-bags he called me; and one afternoon, my eyes
fixed on an ink stain at my feet, the wood floor rocking

like a ship—navis, navem—willing myself out of it,
out of the room, out of the body, swaying in the heat

but also silken, wondering, astray, near fainting
as the nausea heaved—I threw up on his head.

A half-digested avocado in a mess of milk. Fumbling
for his handkerchief he wiped his face, his scalp,

his glasses, “Alright Sacko never mind; can you get down
to sick bay on your won or should I send the Bishop with you?”

Walking home I stopped to watch a line of men work on the road.
They swung their pickaxes in unison, the sun caught flashing

as they poised axe heads for a moment overhead, then with
a slow arc slammed them down into the asphalt crust:

overalls stripped to the waist, cloth arms dangling
near their legs, they chanted out what may have been a long

insult against the foreman, the umlungu, lounging, shirt
unbuttoned, pale belly gleaming in the shade. The work song

hoisted, held mid-phrase, the weight of it, then driven
with a hard expulsion of breath into the ground.

The will is broken,
realigned, then broken further,

burning like another
spine within the spine.

A sentry-spy,
it stalks us from behind.

The sunken path emerges
not as feeling nor as thought

but as the mind itself,
historical, embodied, and alive.

                           Forgotten nights,

the shuck and wash of tides,
entangled shadows of the burglar guards

sent wriggling on the blanket as I stirred there
sleepless, sickened by the swirling

mind lured outward into unknown pleasures
swarming back against the fear

of punishment, of being maimed,
of others’ injuries ...

       Bright red, page after page,
my father’s medical thesis,
                                          my fingers
pressing small black corners
into which he slid the photographs,

the gloss unbuckling,
                              Now look away

(I was no more than five), but what I saw
each time if only for a second, stares at me:

More than naked—
cut apart or sewn;
encrusted. Swollen,
unkown organs
sectioned off
but spilling into

More than any body
could be made to bear.

It was a drowning agony,
compassion sinking
into anger, shame, disgust,
resurging with each later shock

                     —the dead flesh
grafted on a classmate’s arm
held close against my face
until I hunched down pleading
for release;

                        the veteran on the bus,
half-seen, then fully seen,
a boiled mask stretched tight
and welded to the head;

    the sugar-worker’s hand
   crushed by the mill—a red
stump held up to the car,
blood on the lowering glass.

       No other way.

       As through a single
       wound ripped past
       all dressing—

       reaching further in

We tried to bathe him, dabbing,
sponging as he crouched above
the bathroom floor;

then carried him,
                        but weakly,
terrified to grip too hard,
new fractures in the shoulders,
skin like tissue tearing

in my hands—

            a slow nightmarish
stumble to the bed,
he almost slipping free.

Never so powerless,
exchanging that one glance.

The stuff between us acrid,
clogging, unexpungeable

as he lay back, Thanks boy,
against the bloodied sheet.

No other words beside the pulsing,
mortal, mortal, mortal, mortal.

Above a splotch of green far down against the wrinkled
blue—but nothing under me no wing no craft no seat

only flapping pages of The Mercury on which I squatted
knowing if I clutched I’d fall but grabbing as the papers

tore and lofted and I fell back to the water rushing
at me—following the dream through schools of eels

lampreys hagfish one-eyed flounders polyps nameless
weeds descending fathom after fathom to a buried apex

body taken up into the mind impacted grinding
through the ocean bed into the core—a drill bit

whirling every splinter bone chip ion of the self
disintegrating through a blowhole into nothingness

the water sucked away the air evacuated and the thought
of any form—face shoulders torso pelvis legs—

How long could it have been before the thickening
of spine and brain, the   limbs’ recovered
grappling through old fears, old anger

buried in the reef, whole chunks ripped upward
clinging to the arms, the rusted throat worked loose,
a still unbroken grief approaching as for air?

As ripples move across a pool before there is a pool,
so after nothing that I could perceive, an origin
of light moved out into another version of itself

and I was driven with it to a vertical horizon—
wall or contour of a high inhuman skull, opaquely veined,
through which I saw a river branching into cataracts.

Light beaten into sound, sound blown and beaten into light,
a river-tree held up between its planetary leaves
huge cysts and spores of darkness casting out

bright shocks that spiralled to the widest
units of the wall. The force reverberated through
all sheathing, drawing elemental shapes out of the field

where they stirred, magnetic, crystalline,
the salt and grains of dust converging into gravity
around me, rotated and gathered toward the shore.

    the measure of

         gray shell,
    blood-red anemone,
         my hands,

         my shoulders,
    found, resumed,

    oarings; sifted

         till now

    charged with

         (once more),
         from the broken

    reason in but
         of the law,

         too many
         (it was no

    to pronounce
         in time.

(from the Train, near Anzio, Veterans Day 1994)

Out of the body comes intelligible speech,
but from such wordlessness as if the body
were the world. Leaning out, my hand

against the sill, I watched wild poppies flare
along the track, the cinders whispering here they are,
they are...too many to be held in sight,

red poppies blurring out of recollection,
seeping back, reopened, flattened to crepe
petals pinned against our uniforms in school.

The shallow pride of decorations worn
against my terror even at photographs
of war; seen once, a Life or Look left open

to a soldier blasted to a ragged mess.
For years when I went up alone to bed
he ambushed me: across the darkened landing,

left arm flailing, right crammed down
against the entrails, head torn open,
mouth near-gone and one eye left to stare

fast glazing out the last thing it would see,
my own hand scrabbling up the wall toward
the light switch that would blank him out.

What did I fear beyond the quick blood-soaked
immersion through the living and the dead—
as if by diving through a single swell

I could resurface out behind the lines,
a momentary calm in which another
wave returns still higher, thicker, lunging

overhead from the horizon—crying out—
so that I press my hand over the shattered
mouth, our bodies wrestle intertwined,

his writhing under mine, a swirl of weed,
red fish, red blossoms gathered, mounded,
breaking into flight then gathering again

until at last remaining what it was
—the human form, no more no less
however torn, opposing everything:

“Control yourself and listen. All you know
is words, the other than. Why do you think
your father never spoke of it? Can you imagine

what it’s like to watch a thousand sheep
stampeded through a minefield into enemy fire;
then stumbling across the field yourself,

haystacks burning, blood and chaos everywhere,
you hear your friend yell, Watch your hairnet
dearie! then his head explodes beside you

in a splash of brains and hair the bloody
muck over your mouth your eyes your ears?”
—I answered nothing. Neither death

nor dying but my own body’s own first
certainty of butchery had ruptured
through me: my life against his own,

against his life and death to which
no word, no year of words could count
for more than an evasion pressing back

toward an image of the dead recovered,
grappled, conjured into life
—or banished wholly out of mind.

I knew there’d be no end to this betrayal.
The same aftershock by which he vanished
rippled now behind my eyes, and through the words

your mouth your eyes your ears the bloody muck
and through each breath itself until
these too rushed backward with the track,

the stones, the cinders, the unnumerable poppies
bending back and shaken as we passed.

FOOTNOTES: Natal Command is the name of a military camp in Durban, in the province of Natal (pronounced Natál), South Africa.

Peter Sacks, "Natal Command" from Natal Command (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Source: Natal Command (The University of Chicago Press, 1997)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Peter Sacks b. 1950


Subjects Health & Illness, Living, Stars, Planets, Heavens, Social Commentaries, The Body, Youth, War & Conflict, Nature, Time & Brevity, Heroes & Patriotism, Sorrow & Grieving, Death

 Peter  Sacks


Poet and scholar Peter Sacks grew up in South Africa. He visited Detroit as an exchange student in the late 1960s, witnessing another manifestation of the violent struggle for racial justice that marked his homeland. As a student at the University of Natal, Sacks was active in the anti-apartheid movement until he was drafted to join the military. He spent three months in military training before leaving for Princeton University, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poems by Peter Sacks

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.