A STRUCTURALIST POETICS OF JAMES DICKEY’S HUNTING CIVIL WAR RELICS AT NIMBLEWILL CREEK, a critical essay by John Timothy Robinson

     In this particular poem enigma and fact become blurred, not necessarily as a matter of communicated fact, though essentially through an absence of historicity.  There was no battle at Nimblewill Creek, Georgia.  In our contemporary time, this body of water is a popular fishing location.  In 1830 gold was discovered there and the North-Eastern portion of the state was populated by Southern sympathizers.  One source claims the Dahlonega Mint was located in this area from 1838 to 1861 and made Confederate coins for 26 years.  James Dickey lived from 1923 to 1997 and was a prolific Southern writer of legendary repute.  His son Christopher Dickey, himself now a respected literary figure, has commented on his father’s tall-tale bravado.  The fiction of Nimblewill Creek has been created in dramatis personae as the setting for this work.  The context created by the poet in this sense plays upon and perpetuates a mood of uncertainty, political tension and the sheer pointlessness of division.  A great complexity permeates the reading of this work to such a degree that one could argue, only certain types of people are supposed to read it and dwell on its meanings.  The poem takes up themes, though only communicates them to those who are familiar with the history of warfare or those divided by its senseless death and suffering. 

     Since this poem is narrated by one of the assumed brothers searching for Civil War relics, Dickey has utilized a personal deictic in conveying the narrative to the reader.  The illusion of reality is not broken as the work of art communicates from stanza to stanza the events that take place in this setting.  The younger brother observes his older brother in the context of searching an old battle site.  Throughout his account, the reader also gathers a sense of tension through the manner in which facts are conveyed.  The poem culminates in a transcendence of emotion for the narrator as the original publication of the work juxtaposes it historically with the early Civil Rights era, yet serves as a double counter to the opposition of sides taken in the Civil War.  Because of this, I would also argue that the work takes on a temporal aspect as the conflict implied is one in the historical past of our nation.  The characters presented exist in a contemporary setting and the work constantly shifts back and forth between the present and the historical event of a battle which took place during the Civil War.  A spatial aspect is also created by the historical nature of warfare in this particular time period as place-names were typically associated with battles.  

     “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” illustrates a more typical kind of poetic parallelism among various stanzas of the same work and is an illustration of a more subtle way to establish unity of theme and subject.  Dickey achieves this through the use of the same or similar words and phrases by careful placement, repeating them every other stanza of the work.  Culler defines Samuel Levin’s linguistic concept of “couplings” in language in chapter eight of his Structuralist Poetics.  According to Culler a coupling is the use of “…metrical or phonetic patterns…in which parallelism in sound or rhythm begets or passes over into parallelism of meaning” (SP 185).  There is only one example of phonetic coupling in Dickey’s poem.  At line thirty-five, Dickey likens the word “Nimblewill” to the call of a Whippoorwill.  He spends the previous lines twenty-seven to thirty-four describing the call, confusing it at first as two separate bird-calls.  The phonetic quality of the word serves three different purposes.  First, as a pun on the actual sound and name of the bird.  The name of the bird itself is a phonetic allusion because it sounds like, “whip poor will.” Knowing this, when the reader then sees the word “Nimblewill,” there exists another phonetic play on words as this operates as a reversal of punning where the name bears connotations of having a strong spirit.  The more typical variety of phonetic couplings are found in nursery rhymes where the rhythm of the lines imitates the action of the characters portrayed.  As well, we can only say that Dickey has used “…a phonetic or rhythmical figure as a way of stressing or throwing into relief a particular form and thus emphatically its meaning,” only in reference to what could be called a controlling metaphor of the poem—the Whippoorwill (Culler 185).  Phonetic and rhythmical patterns are more or less absent due to the work’s strong free-verse qualities.  The convention of “unity and symmetry” will serve as a better means to “justify the formal features” of this poem (Culler 186).  Dickey has chosen to use a very common poetic convention in a highly selective and complex way.  

     “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” embodies formal unity through binary aspects of generational political opposition, dialectical resolution, use of the four-term homology and a series with a transcendent final term.  Dickey’s poem has been constructed of seventy-two lines in six stanzas of twelve lines each.  The primary binary oppositions which exist in the poem pertain to political opposition of the Union and Confederate armies of the Civil War, the term itself being an oxymoron, though composed of unlike elements.  The main characters of the events described in the poem are brothers and it only implied that one is older and the narrator, the younger one.  Other binary oppositions are illustrated through the work such as visual and audible, the physical and spiritual, the living and the dead, past and present as well as formal and free-verse qualities of the work.  Every binary aspect of this pom creates or serves to maintain tension of opposition, though eventually becomes unified and resolved through the shared activity o searching for buried war relics, if only through the mind of the narrating brother.

     The inherent dialectical opposition is implied in the title and the quality of Dickey’s description of the brother’s relationship to each other.  The poem’s title bears the term “Civil War,” which is historically known as a war between the North and South, the Union and the Confederacy.  The speaker says in stanza two, “The battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill…” which suggests the brothers have possibly taken different sides on how they think about the war (L 21-23).  The speaker uses the phrase “appallingly close,” to characterize the bird-call he describes in stanza three.  In stanza four, the bird-call is described as if “…two birds fight / For a single voice…” (L 40-41).  Opposition is also conveyed through descriptions of the metal-detecting brother.  The older brother has “clapped ears” and a “clamped head” (L 16 and 44).  These phrases carry connotations of auditory and psychological obstruction.  These types of phrases characterize him as stubborn and unlikely to change his ways or views.  With the argument known and its parallelism played out through the expressed emotion of the bird-call stanza, its dialectical oppositions become resolved in the fifth and sixth stanzas.  The simile Dickey uses in the next-to-last stanza is a renunciation of war: “Like that of a sniper / Who throws down his rifle and yells / In the pure joy of missing me” (L 56-59).  This image is followed by one in the last stanza of supplication: “I fall to my knees,” as if to make a greater, humanistic gesture of compassion (L 62).  The speaker characterizes himself as “…a man who renounces war…” (L 68).  The final lines draw all humanity together as the speaker transcends his own family and identifies with all people.  He says he is “…one who shall lift up the past, / Not breathing ‘Father,’ / At Nimblewill, / But saying, ‘Fathers!  Fathers!” (L 69-72).  Here, the argument of political opposition has been resolved through a generalized, spiritual unity for all humanity.  Even the poem operates in a dialectical manner, the model of “…thesis, antithesis and synthesis,” as in the English sonnet tradition, for example, is not present (Culler 172).  Instead, “Hunting for Relics at Nimblewill Creek” in its shifting from opposition towards one of transcendence moves beyond “…the realm of feeling and judgment into one of faith” (Culler 173).  Because of these coexisting features, Dickey’s poem illustrates a dialectic opposition which becomes displaced through the speaker’s thoughts and feelings at the conclusion in a way which resolves the opposition, if only from the narrators point-of-view.

     A four-term homology is illustrated through the dialectic opposition suggested by the author and illustrated in the traits and ideas associated with each brother.  The first two terms are established by the fact that the brothers have taken opposing sides on the issue of the Civil War, though Dickey is not explicit in conveying through the younger narrating brother what those differences are, only that “The battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill” (L 21-23).  Other traits organize the sides, though only implicitly.  The older brother is stubborn, not open to suggestions, preoccupied with detecting, listening only for signals and never communicates with the younger brother narrator unless he finds something.  The younger brother follows, digs for the located objects, identifies with nature and narrates the account to the reader.  The narrator’s transcendence in stanza six becomes the authorial message of renouncing war and hatred for one’s fellow man.  Because of this, Dickey’s poem also illustrates the series with a transcendent final term.  The speaker falls to his knees to dig and raise the relic, though what he yields is a vision of humanity through the actions of one who realizes the humanity in other people. 

     The author’s controlled use of repetitious words and rhetorical figures establish a theme of discovery and a transcendence of conflict.  This is created in the work by the fact that both are involved in the same activity—searching for civil War relics in an old battlefield.  Eventually, through this unified action, historical conflict becomes resolved through a more humanistic vision of society.  Thematic meaning serves as a way to heal political conflict, if only for the narrating brother.  The four interpretive operation help to clarify this.  Binary relations of opposition have already been discussed, though figures of speech and literary elements, rhetorical figures, play a central role.

     Some rhetorical element play a central role in the work, while lesser features serve to heighten effect or detail.  The core group of repetitious words, parallelism, simile, oxymoron, metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche and phonetic word-play all take central roles in the work.  The title, “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” contains five aspects which shape the interpretive context of the work.  “Hunting” is a sport that involves killing.  “Civil War” is both a historical reference and an oxymoron.  “Nimblewill” also has a double connotation of meaning moving quickly and lightly as well as having the ability of making well-reasoned choices or controlling one’s destiny and actions.  The word “creek” grounds the work in a rural, Appalachian landscape emphasizing humanity, located away from the institutions of society, though the soldiers having died representing those old, fallen structures, it is the humanness of the brothers that becomes emphasized.  Structural repetition of  a compressed range of syllables per line, figurative descriptions, uniform stanza structure and line-count, anaphora, symbolism, allusion, connotation, slight refrains and even the complex model of opposition for each stanza establish lesser elements of the poem.  The core group of words consist of; ‘war,” “brother,” “battle,” “dead,” “cry,” “light,” “ground,” “bird,” “voice,” “buried,” “metal” and “smile” (Hall 97-99).  This repetitious word-play creates a similitude within the subject and lends itself to rhetorical unity of the entire work.  The binary aspects help to establish parallels within the poem, drawn between past and present because of the implied difference of political stances of each brother.  A second parallel between the Whippoorwill and the younger, narrating brother operates as a way to emphasize his psychological conflict within himself and its eventual resolution at the poem’s end.  The first type of parallelism can be thought of as contextual, providing a logical frame-work for the conflict of war.  The second type is a personal, psychological parallelism which serves to dramatize the narrator’s conflict within himself.  

     Dickey’s use of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche and phonetic word-play also operate as important rhetorical aspects.  A stanza-by-stanza discussion of these features will help to clarify their contextual roles.  The contemporary-historical context has been established by the title as the first stanza develops the situation and clarifies the environment in which the search takes place.  Use of the term “mine-detector” instead of “metal-detector,” implies the volatile nature of the political aspect of division suggesting that these divisions are still present.  The second half of the first stanza exhibits an odd rhetorical-conditional phrasing: “For I can tell / If we enter the buried battle / Of Nimblewill / Only by his expression” (L 9-12).  This extended, grammatical construct places importance on the older brother, though stresses the conditional quality of the experience of history only in finding artifacts.  The narrator says in more formal diction, “For” and “If we enter,” then “Only,” which connotate a different level of meaning compared to mere description of literal action.  Ideas are either challenged or reified by the presence of other people.  This one gesture is vital in Dickey’s poem because it reduces the social situation to its most fundamental element of agreement.  The brothers are the people in the poem.  As such, they serve as catalyst of the dramatic conflict which plays through the mind of the narrator.

     The second stanza illustrates the use of several primary rhetorical figures.  The narrator describes his brother as “…parting / The grass with a dreaming hand” (L 13-14).  Here, “dreaming hand” is used as a metaphor for anticipating discovery of a relic.  Reverse personification can be seen in the phrase, “No dead cry yet takes root” (L 15).  The dead are inanimate and cannot cry, nor do they have the qualities of roots.  The phrase “clapped ears” is particularly clever for it plays on onomatopoeia, though “clapped,” in this context, has the opposite quality of having your hearing obstructed and only listening through the instrument for a noise.  This is especially meaningful in the context o conflict because it also implies the older brother cannot hear the younger brother.  The idea that something “…can be seen in his smile” is a figurative allusion to the fact that something has been detected through the headset because this is what causes him to smile (L 17).  The lines, “…but underfoot I feel / The dead regroup” seems to be a rather open metaphorical statement (L 18-19).  They could implicate both the historical battle and also indicate objects are about to be discovered, though “regroup’ carries the connotation that the brothers could actually share the same political view and that the conflict itself is with those who have been dead; soldiers, relatives and as we see more specifically by the conclusion of the poem, possibly, ‘Fathers.’ The lines which state that “…battle lines be drawn / Anew to include us / In Nimblewill” is a more specific allusion that the brothers themselves share the same division, though this is only implied as the reader never knows which brother takes either side (L 21-23).  These basic literary elements provide a curious opening context for the development of material.

     Stanza three represents one of the most intricate and symbolically important parts of Dickey’s poem.  The speaker narrates their movement across the creek and struggles to describe the call of a Whippoorwill.  He uses the metaphor “A bird’s cry breaks” to describe its startling tone and pattern of “…two, and into three parts” (L 27-28).  Use of the words “weapons” for “shovel and pick” carries further connotations of warfare and reinforce themes of search and conflict (L 26 and 24).  Further description of the call characterizes the noise as being two birds instead of one as “…the cry / Shifts into another, / Nearer bird,” which I argue is metaphor that conveys the fact that the cry sounds like it is two which blend together, yet it is still only the one, three-part call of the Whippoorwill (L 29-31).  The writer then characterizes the call further with three similes; “Like the shout of a shadow— / lived-with, appallingly close— / Or the soul, pronouncing / ‘Nimblewill’” (L 32-35).  All three similes are intended to describe the call of the bird.  The first two attempt to characterize its tonal qualities, while the last is a qualitative blend of simile and personification.  The call is so sudden it is like the “shout of a shadow” or something that makes one uncomfortable as the use of dashes, here signal the speaker’s difficulty with this experience.  Further word choice of “appallingly close” bring to mind the notion of having to live in a situation that one does not desire.  The writer only relies on context to guide the reader’s interpretation of his words, though being associated with the younger brother and the description of the Whippoorwill call only guide us generally in the direction of connotative phonetics and the generalized idea of political separation.  There exists a colloquial saying that if two people are usually together often, one is referred to as the other’s shadow.  The situation of brothers would be no different.  Dickey here connects the soul with one’s will—the normal, human drive to make one’s own decisions.  The mimetic word-play of the name of the bird counters this because the name is also what the call sounds like.  As a statement, the phrase would be, ‘whip your will,’ or as the name literally is arranged, “whip poor will.” The narrator then links these comparisons to the idea of the human soul personified through the place where the battle occurred and further compares the call with his own qualification, likening it to the sound of the name “Nimblewill.” The last line is a metaphorical description of its effect on the younger brother.  All of these literary devices  are intended to suggest generational conflict on the issue of the Civil War, or at least political issues in a generic sense between brothers.  

     If stanza three can be referred to as an emblematic stanza of psychological conflict and identification of the younger brother with this struggle, stanza four could be called the discovery stanza because this is where something is detected in the search for relics.  The younger brother says, “A faint light glows on my brother’s mouth,” which metaphorically indicates that he hears a signal from the metal detector (L 39).  The younger brother is still listening to the bird call and describes it with metaphorical conflict as “…two birds fight / For a single voice” (L 40-41).  This is the clearest statement of conflict in the entire poem.  Still, what the younger brother thinks is happening is not taking place.  This again characterizes his confusion in deciphering the call of the Whippoorwill.  The narrator uses metaphor to describe the older brother as “…hearing the grave, / In pieces, all singing,” which means that he has a stronger signal from the metal-detector (L 42-43).  The negative connotations of the “clamped head” of the detecting brother and the last four lines clarify the conflict of the brothers as generational.  The narrator says, “For he smiles as if / He rose from the dead within / Green Nimblewill / And stood in his grandson’s shape” (L 45-48).  The “He” in line forty-six refers not to the detecting brother, but to a dead relative who was involved in this battle.  It is not logical, even metaphorically, to say that one of the characters in a work have risen from the dead when they are alive in context and performing routine, human activities.  Dickey’s intentional blurring of a binary opposition here creates a parallel between past and present cultural conflict which plays a central role in its later resolution.  The idea of resurrection, virility, “Green,” and resemblance of a relative all connotate a new beginning.  As such, this is the first sign of healing from the conflict implied by the language of the poem.  

     Stanza five constitutes the narrator’s emotive realization and renunciation of conflict.  The phrase “buried war” metaphorically refers to this past and present conflict (L 49).  The narrator then makes an allusion to the dead in the previous stanza.  He says, “For the dead have waited here / A hundred years to create,” as if through this personification such longing for resolution could be purged (L 51-52).  If one subtracts the year Dickey published this poem in Sewanee Review, 1961, from 100, the resulting number is the same as the very year the Civil War began: 1861.  The first line expresses the idea that this division has ended.  The narrator says, “No shot from the buried war / Can kill me now,” as an emotive expression of a change that has taken place (L 49-50).  The other brother has found something and both minds are now focused on the same objective, forgetting their differences.  The narrator then compares himself with one who has renounced war: “While I stand, with / The same voice calling insanely / Like that of a sniper / Who throws down his rifle and yells / In the pure joy of missing me” (L 54-59).  This simile concludes the emotional situation of discovery, drawing both brothers together in the same cause.

     If stanza three can be thought of as one of psychological conflict, stanza six is best characterized as the emotional resolution of that conflict.  The last stanza is structurally similar to three because Dickey uses many of the same rhetorical devices to create an expressed closure for the narrator.  This stanza is one of the most interesting because the poet is very skillful at creating the figural from the literal, yet using a literal image as a symbolic one.  The first lines mention the detecting brother’s “…long-buried light on his lips” (L 61).  Dickey continues the theme of discovery as unifying action and plot resolution as the narrating brother’s figural-literal actions take on spiritual connotations as he says, “I fall to my knees / To bring up mess-tin or bullet,…” (L 62-63).  This stanza is composed of ten figural statements and two literal.  The lines, “To dig” and “At Nimblewill,” as if communicating short-hand in their own way, convey the literal actions of the brothers.  All other lines are metaphors or similes.  One does not “fall” to the ground, one kneels.  The three lines illustrating anaphora are composed of one literal and two figural.  “To bring up…,” meaning to retrieve, and “To go underground…,” meaning to dig again, creates the first half of the six lines composing this somewhat formal stanza (L 63-65).  The next three repetitious lines form an extended comparison of the narrator with one who has resolved his conflicts.  Comparison with the Whippoorwill alludes back to stanza three as the narrator says, “Still singing myself, / Like a hidden bird,…” (L 66-67).  The narrator extends the comparison of himself to one who has “renounced war,” or one now preoccupied with history, as he says, “…one who shall lift up the past,…” (L 68-69).  The last three lines of the poem express the speaker’s emotional transcendence of generational conflict.  Dickey again characterizes the closeness of such ties with the word “breathing” rather than ‘saying,’ as if in refrain, “‘Fathers!  Fathers” (L 70-72)!  The poet again plays on the ambiguity of the literal situation.  In poetry, to refrain means to repeat, yet the literal meaning is to resist doing something.  Here it refers to the sins of the fathers of generations past.  The word “Nimblewill” appears as the eleventh line of every stanza.  Dickey’s use of these primary rhetorical figures provides a gesture of closure concerning the narrator’s struggle with generational conflict.  

     The lesser rhetorical figures buttress the poem and reinforce its formal nature as these concepts create structural aspects which reinforce the primary rhetorical figures of the work.  Dickey utilizes six stanzas of twelve lines each as a basic scaffold for the poem.  Beneath this, figurative description, syllabic compression, enjambed stanzas, symbolism and refrain serve as a subtle means of creating heightened effect and unity.  However, dickey has deliberately characterized this work deliberately as one of indeterminacy because it lacks the complete set of final, qualifying elements which would make it strictly a formal or a free-verse work.  In one sense, the poem’s stanza structure and line count remind the reader of the formal ode form.  Compressed lines range mostly from three to nine syllables, range mostly from three to nine syllables, though have no strict pattern.  The lines themselves are not metrical and the author only uses enjambment twice as a means of drawing thematic material together, between the second and third, and the fifth and sixth stanzas.

     The idea of Reception Theory in literary criticism did not exist in 1975.  Therefore, when Jonathan Culler authored Structuralist Poetics, discussing the idea of resistance and recuperation of the literary work, this valuable source of scholarly writing was not available to him.  However, it would seem to be a logical move for any critical writer to assess the reception of the work in question.  “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” is typically given anecdotal treatment in scholarly literature.  The poem is not as popular as “The Firebombing” or “The Lifeguard.” James Dickey’s son, Christopher Dickey, recently deceased, refers to the poem as “…a moving poem…about (James) searching with Tom (his brother) through a forgotten killing field…” (Daily Beast).  In the readerly sense, however, the resistance factor would not seem very significant.  The work has been written using common diction explaining common actions.  The figurative gestures and formal features exert a complexity which exists just beneath the surface of the writing.  They do not confuse or complicate the reading process.

     If one were to examines the concepts of plot, theme and character in “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” the work would seem to exert strong narratological qualities.  The poem establishes a clear context through its title which describes the activities of the characters.  The poem has been structured with a beginning, middle and an end, roughly in pairs of stanzas.  One and two establish exposition.  Three and four illustrate conflict and establish an emotional quality.  Stanzas five and six can be thought of as climax and resolution.  The plot of this poem mirrors the binary qualities of the characters.  As I said earlier, there exists a political opposition which can be communicated as generational.  The brothers may or may not share the attitudes of the soldiers who had died on this battlefield.  Description of the plot in this sense is what tells the reader some form of opposition exists.  The plot of searching for relics is more or less a superficial plot created to facilitate the deeper plot conflict illustrated in their actions and the speaker’s emotive expressions.  The characters take on symbolic import as they are both literally brothers, though figuratively they represent all humanity whoever warred over anything.  Emphasis has been expressed through the younger, narrating brother and as such he becomes a catalyst of resolving the problem.  The central theme consists of the unifying activity of the historical search for relics.  Only through this sense of shared goals has the division between sides become less important.  

     The semantic and actional codes pervade the title of Dickey’s poem.  The multiple, colliding connotations of the words create a barrage of meanings that the reader gradually becomes aware of as they read the work.  Whereas “hunting” normally implies killing for sport, here the term has been used in the same sense as the domestic synonym for searching.  “Civil War” clarifies the historical, contextual focus.  Use of the word “relics” is an archaism which may signal the author’s attitude towards the warring attitudes of North and South.  “Nimblewill Creek” conveys the immediacy of the local, grounding the work in past and present, though as the author’s son said, is one of the lesser, forgotten battle sites of the Civil War.  As such, the title is immediately cultural-referential as well, drawing up notions of notions of early nationhood and sacrifice.

     The actional code is illustrated in twos senses in Dickey’s poem; first as a type of controlling action through the search for relics and all the routine actions associated with this activity, though also through the speaker’s internal actions as he conveys his thoughts pertaining to implied conflict.  The idea of the search, “hunting,” consists of the controlling actional code of the plot of the poem.  Each stanza contains a group of actions which can be thought of as controlling the mood of each one.  The first stanza illustrates actions which stress physicality; “moves,” “float,” “I come into this war,” “watching” and “enter” (L 1, 3, 5, 7 and 10).  The second stanza expresses actions which seen mostly visual and contemplative; “wanders, parting,” “dreaming hand,” “cry,” “seen,” “feel,” “regroup,” “burst,” “drawn” and “carry” (L 13-15, 17-21 and 24).  Stanza three consists of the most emotively vocal actions due to its centrality as an expression of the narrator’s psychology.  Here we see actions such as “bore,” “cry,” “cross,” “shifts,” “shout,” “pronouncing” and “changes” (L 26-27, 29-30, 32, 34 and 36).  Stanza five can be thought of as the turn of the poem, the rising action which precedes the transmutation of the speaker’s character.  The actions in this stanza predominantly shift perspective from the horizontal plane to the spiritual, alluding to the speaker’s vision of greater humanity; “climb,” “glows,” “listen,” “fight,” “hearing,” “singing,” “smiles,” “rose” and “stood” (L 37-38, 40, 42-43, 45-46 and 48).  Stanzas five and six being the emotive climax of the poem, both illustrate resolution of conflict and transcendence.  In stanza five the actions are “shot,” “kill,” “waited,” “create,” “stand,” ‘calling,” “throws,” “yells” and “holds” (L 49-52, 54-55, 57 and 60).  In stanza six, the actional elements return from the past connotations of the fifth stanza, returning the ‘light’ to the horizontal, human plane which characterizes its final transcendence.  The poet re-grounds the work within the search, an activity he personally shared with his actual brother, in this culminating resolution; “fall,” “dig,” “bring up,” “go underground,” “singing,” “renounces,” “lift up,” “breathing” and “saying” (L 62-66, 68-70 and 72).  The actional codes in this respect, operate as a way to characterize conflict through binary oppositions and then illustrate its resolution.

     Some actinal qualities are communicated through figurative gestures of poetic language, such descriptive elements operate as semantic codes.  Because they describe and are not literal, they are rhetorically semantic in that they add connotative elements to the context they are describing.  Such uses of figurative language are often ambiguous and metaphorical.  As such, they bear strong hermeneutic qualities because they conceal meaning through a literary enigma which forces thought, attention and reflection upon specific material.  In stanza one, “come into this war” is not literal, it is figural because there is no war taking place, only the conflict that exists in the psychology of the narrating brother (L 5).  The same connotations exist in the phrase, “…enter the buried battle” (L 10).  In stanza two, “No dead cry yet takes root” (L 15).  This line is doubly figurative in that “dead cry” cannot logically be conceived since only the living cry.  “Takes root” is figurative because qualities of voice do not have the organic traits of plants.  They cannot literally take root.  The idea that “The dead regroup…” expresses figurative action because the dead are inanimate (L 19).  The phrase “…battle lines be drawn” is figurative because in one sense the phrase is metaphorical, alluding to an undisclosed conflict among brothers, and in another sense, there is not battle to serve the purpose of using the phrase even n a figurative sense, unless to serve the author’s purpose of narratological conflict.  The war no longer exists and has become historical fact.  For the same reason, “…to include us,” operates in a similar way though it is not n action but a gesture of thought alluding to an action (L 22).  In stanza three the word “breaks” suddenly interrupts silence (L 27).  Silence is an idea, not a physical object which can be broken.  Use of the word “shifts,” here means changes audible form (L 30).  The phrase “shout of a shadow” is figural as inanimate objects cannot speak (L 32).  Equally literal, though used as a simile, “Lived-with, appallingly close—” describes the call of the Whippoorwill, though completely uncharacteristic for such a description, signals an ambiguity of inner conflict (L 33).  The phrase “…soul, pronouncing / ‘Nimblewill’” is figurative since it implies closeness or proximity to the idea being described, though souls cannot speak in the conventional sense of phenomena because they are a psychological construct (L 34-35).  The phrase, “…your being changes” is figurative description of the sensation of hearing the Whippoorwill call, though the phrase is used in an actional sense (L 36).  Nothing changes except in the mind of the speaker.  The figurative phrase, “A faint light glows / On my brother’s mouth” is stated, literal action, though implies that he has detected something (L 38-39).  The phrase, “…hearing the grave…,” is figurative because it is not possible to hear a grave (L 6).  The simile, “…as if / He rose from the dead…,” is equally figurative because this is scientifically impossible (L 45-46).  The idea of familial resemblances characterizes the phrase, “…stood in his grandson’s shape” (L 48).  The deliberate ambiguity here extends from the two brothers to include past generations (L 48).  It is deliberately not clear in this line whom is referred to, the brother detecting or a past relative.  Stanza five refers to the ‘buried war,” though wars as events cannot be buried (L 51).  This is merely a double-referent to the pastness of the war and the fact that proofs remain buried in the soil due to the passage of time.  Equally so, a phrase such as “the dead have waited here / A hundred years” is a gesture of historical unity and referential literality due to 1861 being 100 years prior to Dickey’s publishing the poem in Sewanee Review (L 51-52).  This is figural because the dead cannot wait in the same sense as the living wait.  The phrase “…create / The look on a man’s loved features,…” is figural as nothing dead can cause something to happen to the living in an actional sense (L 52-53.  The gesture merely means that relics are buried and that it is their discovery that causes a reaction on the detecting brother’s face.  The transitional lines of sixty and sixty-one express the figural, “…holds / A long-buried light on his lips” (Hall 99).  You cannot bury light nor hold it on your lips.  These line refer to the time which has passed without a response between the detecting brother and the narrator.  One cannot literally “…lift up the past” as no psychological concept can be physically touched (L 69).  The phrase “Not breathing, ‘Father” is a metaphor of transformation (L 70).  You cannot breathe another human being.  

     If the semantic code pertains to the descriptive elements of characters and setting within a work, then those of “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” mostly convey subtle qualities of the local and those nuances which communicate the human longing for resolution of political conflict through the experience of the narrator.  The title grounds the work within the context of the local.  The poet subverts this title through the various connotations it conjures.  The dramatic action tells a brief narrative of two brothers searching for historical artifacts in a battlefield of a past war.  The name “Nimblewill,” carries connotations of resilience.  However, this was not a decisive battle and it is not clear which side won the skirmish.  This may be Dickey’s point, though as the name of a battle it would seem to support the view of the surviving spirit of mankind.  To have a nimble will would be to possess a positive human trait.  One would have the ability of making quick-witted decisions, reasoned choices and self-control in battle.  The poem’s theme suggests this war divided the brothers and that this search for war relics acts as a catharsis for them to overcome the conflict, even though the dramatic actions of the poem take place in the contemporary setting, then, 1961.  The connotations of lines fifty-one and fifty-two imply that the political differences represented by the war is the origin of the conflict between the brothers as 1861, one hundred years prior to 1961, is the beginning and not the end of the Civil War.  From stanza to stanza, the connotations shift back and forth between brothers to illustrate their differing natures.  

     In the structuralist sense, “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek” is a masterpiece, primarily because of Dickey’s skillful manipulation of language and his tactful placement of features which evade and affirm formal qualities.  The hermeneutic aspect illustrated in this work does not necessarily operate to conceal features of the text and has been used by the author as a subtle, yet intricate device which conveys poetic feeling.  When the hermeneutic code creates readerly confusion through ambiguity and a usage of language which is different from that of enigma commonly found in the application of the language codes to fictional narratives,  this as well is an illustration of attention.  Typically these involve employment of rhetorical figures, which I include in a broader sense in my conception of the function of the hermeneutic code in the study of poetry.  It is this sense of figurative language which makes poetry what it is, beyond merely being beautiful language or colorful description.

     The stanza structure of Dickey’s writing leads the reader to conclude it may be a formal poem, perhaps an ode.  There are six stanzas composed of twelve lines each, creating visual unity on the page.  Every eleventh line is a refrain of “Nimblewill,” the location of the setting of both the initial Civil War battle and the poem’s contemporaneous dramatic action.  The name is also associated with the Whippoorwill call described in stanza three, which Dickey uses to express the speaker’s emotions.  The phonetic qualities of the name of the bird are used to establish thematic unity.  Evenly spaced apart for structural unity, the sixth stanza communicates the resolution of dramatic conflict.  Enjambment between stanzas two and three, then stanzas five and six function to draw concepts together toward a specific end.  Here, the hermeneutic serves as a rhetorical device which pulls the stanzas together as a way to place emphasis on material.  The first time we see this is before the emotional confusion of the narrator witnessing the call of the Whippoorwill.  This tells us the catalyst of the conflict is the speaker and how he thinks of the historical-generational implications of the events taking place.  The sixth stanza being highly figural, signals the psychological spiritual transformation and epiphany.  Another hermeneutic aspect Dickey uses in this regard pertains to placement of character descriptions within each stanza.  There always exists an equal ratio of character reference in every stanza.  The first moves back and forth between brothers, one to another and back again.  The second illustrates a one to one comparison.  The third describes only the narrator’s psychological conflict.  The fourth has a focus on the detecting brother.  The fifth stanza illustrates a one to one comparison.  The sixth shows them also one to one, though unified in a different way.  In stanza five they are literally separated, one referenced in line forty-nine and one in line sixty.  In the last stanza the poet places them side by side in two successive lines in sixty-one and sixty-two.  The last configuration of this polarity of separation and unity is through an image of supplication.  Attention shifts back to the narrator in stanza six as he says, “I fall to my knees / To dig wherever he points” (L 62-63).  This last image of unity serves as an emotive resolution of the conflict, though a third term is introduced at the end, “’Fathers!  Fathers!’” (L 72).  The last four lines represent the culmination of the speaker’s awareness of his own feelings of conflict, smothered by the views of generations past, now resolved through this humanistic gesture in relating the experience to all people.

     How the speaker describes events, observations and emotions through figurative diction create some of the hermeneutic aspects of the poem.  The title and opening description of the brother holding a “…mine-detector’ suggest volatility and the idea that the conflict suggested in the title may still be present (L 1).  Equally so, “…into this war” has been used as a way of bridging both past and present, though in a language that includes the brothers as participants of some sort (L 5).  In fact, throughout the poem it is the connotations of Dickey’s language that suggest in a very protracted manner any of the clues which serve to guide the reader’s awareness.  Every stanza contains some reference to an aural feature of life.  The older brother is listening for a signal in stanza one and the contrast of little or no aural quality in stanza two.  The third stanza is the highly emotive bird-call scene which continues more or less in the background of the fourth stanza, shifting back to the signal listened for in stanza one.  Stanza five conveys the shout of the narrator given at the moment of discovery, though he parallels the experience with an act of renunciation.  His descriptions here are joyous; “calling insanely” and “yells in the pure joy of missing me,” seem especially suggestive (L 55 and 57-58).  “Watching his face grow deep / Between the earphones” is an indirect way to imply that the brother is listening (L 7-8).  Other aural words are scattered throughout the poem; “cry,” “bird’s cry,” “Nimblewill,” “voice,” “yells” and “singing” all suggest an aural quality (L 15, 27, 41, 55, 57 and 66).  It is also important to note that the very first aural quality is not mentioned until line twenty-seven when the narrator hears the call of the Whippoorwill.  The last sound in the poem is an implied call, though one with strong spiritual overtones as the narrator refrains, “’Fathers!’” (L 72).  Sound and silence, perhaps form an indirect binary opposition within the poem.  

     All rhetorical figures previously discussed can be thought of as hermeneutic effects of the poem, though structurally, stanza three and six, along with the refrain “Nimblewill” and “Fathers” constitute features which give the poem unity.  The first trait that strikes the reader’s awareness is odd, conditional phrasing in stanza one when the narrator says, “For I can tell / If we enter the buried battle / Only by his expression” (L 9-12).  The use of “For,” “If” and “Only” seem unusual and formally conditional usage.  This arrangement and choice of words forces the reader to question their use.  One would normally omit the word “For,” as an instance of economy of usage.  The word “If,” would normally be “when,” or some other word which makes the phrase grammatically correct.  One could also omit this phrase and the line would convey equal logic: ‘I can tell / We enter the buried battle / Of Nimblewill / By his expression.’ Logic remains in tact, though without effect.  These two, important stanzas offer counter effects of each other having opposite results.  Stanza three characterizes the narrator’s psychological conflict where the poetic devices connotate having one’s will subdued or coerced into submission through associational effects, such as one’s family members or locality.  During the Civil War, loyalty to either side was predominantly a geographic phenomena.  The three similes of stanza three have their emotional counterparts multiplied in stanza six, first in the form of anaphora in lines sixty-three to sixty-seven and then three more similes in lines sixty-seven to seventy-two.  Structurally, the return to the same material both, places emphasis on the previous stanza and what the speaker communicates, drawing attention to the narrators resolution of his feelings.  

     The cultural-referential aspects refer to the language and culture of the text.  Nimblewill Creek as an actual location of battle in the Civil War is difficult to verify.  Perhaps this is the reason Dickey places the hundred-year reference in the poem, both to ground it at the beginning of the war in 1861 and as a deliberate blurring of historical clarity.  This is one particular example where recuperation can help better understand authorial motives, though only if there exists a modification of the Structuralist method for this particular code.  Knowing the writer’s background and habits informs a reader’s awareness of the culture of the text.  James Dickey and his brother Tom, a Civil War munitions collector, often hunted for such relics in their actual lives.  Knowing this clarifies two aspects of context; one, the origin of writerly material, and two, the emotional center of what is communicated.  Knowing these facts, the reader would align Tom with the character in the poem described as listening for signals from his metal-detector.  James dickey would be aligned with the narrator of the poem.  This only changes a degree of the depth of one’s readerly perceptions.  Knowing correspondences does not effect the poem’s meaning nor how it operates as a work of art.  However, knowing these biographical facts slightly changes the reader’s understanding of conflict which is central to the poem’s plot.  Instead of understanding the political division as existing between brothers, the accumulation of those connotations in light of these authorial, biographic facts transpose the conflict and characterize it in a general sense as a political division of generations.  

     James Dickey also published an important essay in 1961 titled, “Notes On the Decline of Outrage,” which is an essay about Southern attitudes toward race-relations in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement (Babel to Byzantium 257-278).  Dickey attacks the idea of “Southern” identity that many among the populace claim, saying that they are not even aware of their own history as people.  Here, the poet makes direct reference to “Hunting Civil War relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Dickey describes the white Southerner as “…a collector of relics.  Accompanying his brother to the battlefield sites that surround the city, as well as to some others farther off in the country…” (BB 263-264).  The criticisms leveled at Southern society are also turned back on the writer’s family.  The essay attacks the psychology of living through emblems of war as a kind of neurosis of nostalgia for cultural supremacy.  Dickey criticizes the Southerner saying that he “…knows that the continuing power of the Civil War is not in those things but in its ability to dramatize and perpetuate a feeling about a way of life.  It is actually a symbol of his people’s defense of their right to be Southerners, and as such is more effective now that it has been at any other time during his own life” (BB 264).  The essay can therefore be understood historically as a simultaneous, literary effort to set forth a political polemic which magnifies the problem of racial conflict during that time in American history.  

     Symbolically, the theme can be characterized as generational, political conflict.  The use of brothers as a controlling metaphor of the poem is also used as synecdoche for the pair of brothers represent all humanity.  Psychologically, digging for the object associated with past division signals the narrator’s need to resolve conflict associated with the object.  In another sense, the symbolic action narrated through the work is restorative.  The brothers search together, representing the need to emerge from the experience being rid of the division of warring views.  The poem takes on a spiritual aspect in this regard because the writer characterizes the aspects of his transcendence with religious gestures; resurrection, humility and epiphany culminating in catharsis.  After reading the essay, the reader feels as if “Notes On the Decline of Outrage” is a criticism of Dickey’s own life.  Knowing that he and Tom literally participated in searching for relics shifts the notion of general, symbolic association to a more direct, autobiographical quality.  It is not clear from the essay if there was a conflict between actual brothers James and Tom, though Dickey’s words are a scathing indictment of the then prevailing Southern attitudes of the time.

     In his book, Structuralism in Literature, Robert Scholes outlines five indirect ways that Structuralism can play an educational role in the future practice of literary criticism.  First, Structuralism can enable scholars to have a clear sense of poetic discourse and its relations to other forms of discourse.  In the beginning of the end of Structuralism in its height of influence, there came to be a growing awareness of the text and process of reading as a detached literary activity.  Structuralism espoused the premise of having a preoccupation of attention as to how a literary work was constructed as well as the nature and character of the relationships of its parts.  Thus, the “post” structural shift moved toward the then new idea of Deconstruction, a discourse which tended to accelerate the analysis of the construct, mostly did away with discussion of relationship of parts and tended to focus on attacking the weaknesses of the grounds of the constructed literary object.  Therefore, one great correction a Structuralist poetics can offer the systematic explication of poetry is the examination of relationships among the parts of the literary work of art which make it what it is.  

     Scholes claimed that Structuralism can refine our descriptive terminology and our sense of linguistic process.  This is true even today because we have found in the attempt to develop a method for using a Structuralist poetics, the terminology and concepts of Semiotics were too confusing and unclear in their application for the explication of poetry as demonstrated on Riffaterre’s comparison between his own reading of “Le Chats” and that of Roman Jakobson’s.  if in my own application of a slightly different Structuralist theory on applied poetics partly based on the reputable work of Roland Barthes and his language codes as well as the work of Jonathan Culler, this different method helps others understand a little clearer the structural aspects of the work in question or the place of discourse itself for the future, then this particular poetics has made a significant contribution to literary history.  Our sense of linguistic process itself will have been altered especially in this regard because Culler chose specific linguistic concepts which clarified and further developed the true nature of Structuralist discourse as well as the role of the reader in all future discourse.

     Next, Scholes claims Structuralism can provide us with the best framework available to aid in the perception of an actual poetic text.  In the initial application of a Structuralist poetics, I cannot say that every subsequent application became easier or that I developed the literal writing in the same manner.  In writing explications of the poetry of Donald Hall, William Carlos Williams, James Dickey and Terrance Hayes, I developed sets of notes and outlines of concepts in a fairly consistent and systematic method, though none of them ever evolved as written products in the same way.  Each of them are unique contributions to the application of literary theory to the study of poetry.  

     Scholes also said that Structuralism can give new life to the oldest aspects of our discipline by aiding in the creation of a new philology and a new literary history.  Perhaps new literary historical dimensions can be revealed in new applications of these concepts for Structuralist poetics because they were never applied to poetry when they were first developed many years ago.  Each of the essays I have written using and developing this Structuralist poetics discourse engage the literary text in different ways and also reveal their qualities as uniquely individual.  Some of the aspects which result have similar qualities, though in each case I cannot say that one is ever a duplicate of the other.  

     Finally, Scholes says that Structuralism makes us keenly aware of the communicative aspects of the entire poetic process.  As Culler says of this aspect, writing does not exist in a vacuum.  Each writer and critic have their own motives and beliefs which in turn influence and shape the results of their applied methods.  In the process of explicating the text through other historical methods, Culler found one common problem as an exclusion of the reader’s experience of reading as a valid response to the text.  His concerns were outlined in his text, Structuralist Poetics, though are very different than the popularized version of a similar, more generalized discourse called Reader Response criticism.    

————-

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan.  Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature.  

     Cornell university Press, 1975.

Dickey, Christopher.  “Confederates in the Blood.” The Daily Beast, 21 July.  2015,     

https://www.thedailybeast.com/confederates-in-the-blood.

Dickey, James. “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Hall, Contemporary American  

     Poetry, pp.  97-99. 

—.  “Notes On the Decline of Outrage.” Babel to Byzantium: Poets & Poetry Now.

—.  “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek.” Sewanee Review, vol. 69.  No. 1, winter.  

     1961, pp. 139-141.  Universal Library, 1971.  pp.  257-278.

Hall, Donald.  Contemporary American Poetry.  Second Edition.  Penguin, 1971.  

Scholes, Robert.  Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction.  Yale University Press, 1974. 

-RJ-

JOHN TIMOTHY ROBINSON is a mainstream poet of inwardness from the Kanawha Valley in Mason County, West Virginia.  His 161 literary works have appeared in 111 journals throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Poland and Germany.  He is also a published printmaker with ninety-seven art images and photographs appearing in journals, electronic and print in the United States, Italy, Ireland and the United kingdom.

ADVICE FOR SHERMAN ALEXIE by Barrett Warner

I am pretty sure I will never be asked to write a book about Sherman Alexie.

It isn’t that I wouldn’t want to write a book about him, or that I have nothing to say about “despair, poverty, violence, and alcoholism lightened by wit and humor.”

He made me laugh once. Surely, I could get a book out of that.

Not to mention the yellow face controversy last fall.

And maybe if we swabbed our spit we’d find out we were cousins. Worth a movie maybe, but not a book: “Separated by a thousand years / Two writers / One language.”

My feeling about Alexie was that if I wasn’t going to write a book about him, or if we weren’t going to have sex, why consider him at all?

I guess you could say he gets under my skin.

“The problem with mid-career poets and writers,” I once wrote inside a bathroom stall in a Truck’n America bathroom in Fredericksburg. “Number One: the battle between irony and careerism.”

I added more numbers for other Interstate-95 crappers to add their opinions.

This was in response to Alexie’s “top ten list for writers,” first published in 2010 and which shows up in my news feed every time a new MFA semester begins. It was odd because Alexie, who has written more books than there are miles in a marathon, seems to eschew the internet and yet he created the sort of listical the internet devours.

Near the top, he chastens writers who Google themselves. Well, sorry Sherman, but the rest of us don’t have admin assistants and agents and book marketing departments to do this for us. Just because you may have consultants doing it for you doesn’t mean you’re not Googling yourself.

spinach teethAnd what’s wrong with having a glance in the mirror from time to time? It’s not always about vanity. It can be that you’re worried some spinach is caught in your teeth, or that you’re interested in what the college administrator who might hire you will be finding. Isn’t it kind of like checking your credit rating a few times a year?

What if you were a user and had some trubs keeping up with your publishing record? Every time I Google myself I find some forgotten poem from the Eighties and Nineties that a print journal finally got around to uploading. That was how I learned I’d been anthologized in 1994 and how my first published story was about a guy who made sausages (sorry I so totally forgot about you, Walter).

It’s like reading old newspapers for minor things you might have missed, like a box score from September 11, 2001.

Here’s another gem: “Read 1,000 pages for every page you write.” By my math, that comes out to Alexie having read 50 million pages.

Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said, “You go into a poem with the words you have, not necessarily the words you want.” I say, make your hay when the sun is shining and read when it’s raining and forget about the numbers.

To be truthful, a lot of Alexie’s top ten advice is just about decency, and good manners. Well, okay, we should all be good literary citizens and support literary magazines, and write thank you notes to authors and also understand that authors are not just authors but people too and all people are fallible, including smart asses.

goon squadHe says, “In fiction, research is overrated.” I don’t agree or disagree with this, except that a writer has two things in her five gallon bucket of tools—imagination and experience. If you’re weak with one it helps to be strong in the other. And if you can’t experience what you can’t imagine, research is all you got so be like Jennifer Egan and make the most of it.

Near as I can tell, Alexie has written two dozen books about being Native American. Maybe if he were writing about Darfur he’d have to crack open his Webster.

Alexie also addresses the writing process. He says, “Don’t have any writing ceremonies. They’re just a way to stop you from writing.” I suppose Sherman practices Yoga on a couch rather than a yoga mat. Awesome doing those salutations while March Madness flickers on the sports channel.

But this doesn’t jibe well with what he says about blogs, how “every word in your blog is a word not in your book.” I mean, isn’t a blog just a book without ceremony? Why avoid writing ceremonies if reading is a ceremony?

For every blog post that should have been a book there are probably ten books that should have been blog posts.

Alexie, who once admitted to Bill Moyers, that his art was all about some kind of memoir, probably has a thing or two to say about whether or not a personal investment in the art is transferrable. I think 60 years of excellent confessional and personal poetry have settled that question. But personal investment that comes from experience is one thing, personal investment that is merely what Jack Spicer calls “personal rhetoric” is another.

That is why I blog. I want to make a space for my personal rhetoric to live so that it doesn’t have to live in my art.

As for the words in this essay, well, so much for the idea of writing a book about Sherman Alexie.

 

 

BARRETT WARNER is the author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (2016, Somondoco) and My Friend Ken Harvey (2014, Publishing Genius).