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Poems drawn from a soldier's career

The Complete Poems of Norman Cameron, edited by Warren Hope. Florence, Ky.: R. L. Barth. (14 Lucas St.) 96 pp. $20 cloth; $10 paper. The press of R. L. Barth has, for several years, published small editions of metrical poetry by poets both relatively well-known and relatively unknown.

Norman Cameron (1905-1954) is somewhere in the middle. Those who recognize his name would probably think of his brilliant verse translations from French, especially of Villon; but Cameron also wrote a small amount of original verse, highly valued by many distinguished British poets but otherwise not much read. As editor Warren Hope remarks in his introduction, literary critics and scholars ``who read poems in order to write about them'' can't find much to say about Cameron.

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The problem is, I think, that his poems do not offer the usual kind of handle these commentators require: They are not suspended in a solution of Celtic symbolism, or powered by feminist or macho rage, or committed to the ideology of Marx, Freud, or others. They are merely good poems about one man's experience.

Cameron often writes short dramatic allegories, with much use of analogy and personification, to deal with totalitarianism and other problems arising from his experience as a soldier in World War II. He has a talent for selecting details, and for illustrating big generalizations.

For instance, in ``Central Europe'' he defines a whole geographical-cultural complex in 11 lines by stating a proposition (``The inland years . . . Have set a bloody darkness in their souls''), illustrating it with an image of ``fat peasants winterbound,/ Stunned by the heat of their enormous stoves,/ Whispering fear of baleful gods and wolves,'' and providing an apposite remedy: ``They need a wind bringing up gulls and salt,/ Sailors and nabobs with new foreign gifts,/ To blow their crannies free of ancient fear.''

Most impressive are his poems dealing with Satan and evil, conditioned by Cameron's fighting against Nazi Germany. In ``No Remedy'' we have his succinct judgment on coping with evil: ``Boast you have cut out evil, but/ What is the outline round the cut?'' His advice is like that of medieval penitentials that warn priests not to give parishioners ideas by reading them long lists of sins.

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