Natal Command, by Peter Sacks (Phoenix Poets — University of Chicago Press 1997)
Reviewed by Steve Harris
In “Natal Command,” poet Peter Sacks has crafted a book length elegy, an extended meditation on mortality and how to come to terms with it. This is accomplished primarily in two long sequences (“Natal Command” and “Kein Ander”), which encompass the death of his father and the poet Paul Celan. The link between the two is Sacks himself. Throughout the collection is the ever-present, existentialist sea and, of course, the isolated swimmer, struggling on with his “slanting chop,” and “erratic gasps.” Memory comes to the swimmer, often as “chains of radiance,” but still the unescapable image emerges, triggered by the sound of a nearby propeller churning the water:
The unclogged screw
of a propellor
ringing into fossil-drillings,
detonations, manacles --
monkey-chain above his bed;
he clung with both hands
to the small trapeze
his lower body paralyzed
(Natal Command 4).
The poet's cry “not this” is intense and cuts across the barrier of time. Mortality is first encountered through his dying father (who, in his agony, represents a dying South Africa), with his “huge mouth gorging, / undigested corpses.” And it is this memory that thrusts the poet back even further, to mortality encountered at the age of five, as he leafs through his father's medical thesis, with its horrific examples of maimed bodies from war injuries. The poet is left seeing death everywhere, whether it's “the dead flesh / grafted on a classmate's arm” or a “veteran on the bus,” with his face “a boiled mask.” And now, years later, swimming in his very real but also very metaphorical sea, he feels the constriction of existence itself and the onset of despair -- without surrender, without acceptance of his father's death, there can be no transcendence :
I thrashed to break free
But the ocean held me,
and a slap of water broke
across my mouth.
(Natal Command 4).
Sacks realizes, though caught by time in the “shuck and wash of tides,” with it's enduring rhythms “(mortal, mortal, mortal)”, he must nevertheless be broken, again and again. And being broken is often being broken by history. Sacks' history is one that parallels South Africa's growing unrest. Sacks, a follower of Biko, was required to serve mandatory military duty. But, he was also a conscientious objector to his nation's apartheid policies. The divisions within the poet often take on a military nature, as he struggles to reconcile duty with protest. It is a guerilla war fought in a half-light:
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, alive.
(Natal Command 8).
The sequence closes with a 1994 pilgrimage to Anzio, a place where Sacks' father fought. As he looks out the train window, he continues to struggle with his own inner war (that is, with his South African military experience -- a sharp contrast to the “Good War” of his father) and views the mocking flowers as more wounds rising from ashes:
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.
(Natal Command 14).
It is at this point that terrible images of the past again intrude. Sacks is caught in a bloody struggle with a ghost — a struggle that leaves them “intertwined,” leaving a “human form, no more no less / however torn, opposing everything.” An unnamed veteran (or, perhaps, even Sacks' own inner voice of experience) tries to calm Sacks by telling of the extreme carnage of the fighting around Anzio and why Stalks' father never talked about it.
“Can you imagine
what it's like to watch a thousand sheep
stampeded through a minefield into enemy fire;
then stumbling across that 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.
(Natal Command 14).
By the end of the sequence there is no resolution, only acceptance of an ongoing tension, a bitter acknowledgment that there will “be no end to this betrayal.”
The second long sequence is “Kind Ander,” which is about the poet Paul Celan. Celan, like Sacks, was a powerful swimmer; however, on April 20, 1970, he threw himself into the Seine. His body was not found until May 1. On Celan's desk was found an underlined passage of the poet Hölderlin: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of the heart.” Clearly, Sacks offers up Celan's story as a counterpoint to his own (they are approximately the same age). But while Sacks swims on, Celan jumps:
in the mind
–it is the
past the river
& crushes in
The horrible finality of Celan's decision, his surrender, is made clear as Sacks, using that most Celan-like word “you,” drives his point home:
What Celan didn't underline in Hölderlin's passage was the remainder of the line: “but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters affirmatively.” It is Sacks who will underline this passage for himself in, fittingly, the last poem of the collection “Blue Star”:
But the sky said
Break now or be broken.
Blue star. And the star
fell westward drawing
the last daylight from
the field's edge.
My own translation took me deeper,
star of both hemispheres.
Past the low stone wall of the horizon,
owl-dark and the bloodbeat of its wing,
I could hear everything,
For you must break a grief
to mend it...
There are a number of poems in this collection which, while not part of the two sequences, are quite lovely and moving and well within Sacks' established mood. Two, in particular, are the love poem “May Eve,” and the darkly meditative “For Iris Hayter (On Her 80th Birthday).” “Natal Command” is both beautiful and powerful poetry that should be read slowly and out loud so that the rhythms of Sacks' inner sea establish themselves in heart and mind.