Week 204: El Aghir, by Norman Cameron

I think that what captivates me about this deceptively relaxed, almost throwaway poem with its casual half-rhymes is the intense physicality of its vision and its celebration of water; I know of few poems where that taken for granted substance has such a living presence.

El Aghir

Sprawled on the bags and crates in the rear of the truck,
I was gummy-mouthed from the sun and the dust of the track;
And the two Arab soldiers I’d taken on as hitch-hikers
At a torrid petrol-dump, had been there on their hunkers
Since early morning. I said, in a kind of French
‘On m’a dit, qu’il y a une belle source d’eau fraiche.
Plus loin, a El Aghir.’ It was eighty more kilometres.

Until round a corner we heard a splashing of waters,
And there, in a green, dark street, was a fountain with two facets,
Discharging both ways, from full-throated faucets,
Into basins, thence into troughs and thence into brooks.
Our Negro corporal driver slammed his brakes,
And we yelped and leapt from the truck and went at the double
To fill our bidons and bottles and drink and dabble.
Then, swollen with water, we went to an inn for wine.
The Arabs came, too, though their faith might have stood between.
‘After all,’ they said, ‘it’s a boisson,’ without contrition.

Green, green is El Aghir. It has a railway station,
And the wealth of its soil has borne many another fruit,
A mairie, a school and an elegant Salle de Fetes.
Such blessings, as I remarked, in effect, to the waiter,
Are added unto them that have plenty of water.

Norman Cameron (1905-1953)

Week 35: The Thespians at Thermopylae, by Norman Cameron

The Thespians at Thermopylae

The honours that the people give always
Pass to those use-besotted gentlemen
Whose numskull courage is a kind of fear,
A fear of thought and of the oafish mothers
(‘Or with your shield or on it’) in their rear.
Spartans cannot retreat. Why, then, their praise
For going forward should be less than others.

But we, actors and critics of one play,
Of sober-witted judgment, who could see
So many roads, and chose the Spartan way,
What has the popular report to say
Of us, the Thespians at Thermopylae?

Norman Cameron

A poem finely balanced on a knife-edge of irony. The answer to the question in the last two lines seems to be ‘Not a lot!’, so I take Cameron’s meaning to be that a rational man should view the martial virtues with deep distrust; that sometimes, nonetheless, one must suspend one’s own judgment in a greater cause and follow the Spartan path, as Cameron did by serving in World War II; and that one should expect in return little recognition for this sacrifice of principle and life. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Keith Douglas’s ‘Aristocrats’, that great elegy for a ‘gentle/Obsolescent breed of heroes’.