Emily Dickinson and the Spanish Civil War

Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886 effectively robbed her of the opportunity to participate in the Spanish Civil War, whether on the side of the Republicans or indeed, that of the Nationalists. Here, on this blog, we think she would certainly have thrown her lot in with the former and moreover, we imagine that after reluctantly joining the CPUSA (being unfortunately too old for the Young Communist League), Dickinson, an avowed American, would have rushed to the ranks of the Lincoln Battalion of the XV International Brigade.

Despite her indifference to Stalin and her complete ignorance of the workings of the Comintern, Dickinson appears to have avoided being identified as a political dissident by the SIM, the Stalinist secret police, which spent much time and energy rooting out Trotskyists from the ranks. While Dickinson has never been associated with Trotskyism or even the 4th International, several searches through the archives of the IWW have failed to find definitive evidence of her membership of the Wobblies. Her adherence to class war politics is, of course, a constant theme running through her poetry. Her thoughts on Trotsky per se, are, as of yet, unknown. Or can it really be that simple?

Dickinson as a young Party member, practices semaphore

Despite a tenancy on the part of a certain cabal of literary critics to lap up every drop of ink from her very fascicles, her apparent disinterest in Trotskyism has been ignored, or at least blithely disregarded, until now. Few indeed are the published accounts of her hawking around copies of the Amherst Spartacist and one can safely assume, that in her heart at any rate, she would have followed Bakunin out of the 1st International. Her youthful correspondence with Proudhon (sadly deliberately destroyed in the last weeks of his life) will be the subject of another post.

Many claim that Dickinson’s participation in the Spanish Civil War has had no obvious influence on her poetry, much of which was published posthumously after her death. But is this really the case? Have the critics been blind to her political activism (her organising, for example, a militant poetaster underground autonomous social centre in Amherst in the 1840s) and her obvious commitment to the defeat of fascism?

Towards the end of her life, she became increasingly intolerant of critics (Mitchell and Stuart 2009)

We believe that the several life-altering experiences Dickinson went through fighting in the defence of the Spanish Republic had a fundamental effect on the poetry she had written several decades previously, away from the trenches, the air raids and the deprivations of the front line, back in her native New England.

Take for example the miraculous survival of Joe Greenblatt, who along with Dickinson was the only member of No. 1 Company to live through a ferocious aerial bombardment during the defence of Teruel in January 1938. Dickinson had just received a parcel from Amherst containing a large jar of boiled sweets and a few cartons of cigarettes. On seeing this, Greenblatt insinuated his way into the poetaster’s tidy dug-out, and as the remainder of the unit ran across the snow to engage with the fascists on the next ridge, he sweet talked his way into her company with wildly fanciful tales of a  previous job as a telephonist and general handyman with a small New England undertaker, gist indeed for the poetaster’s mill.

He was sucking on his third boiled sweet as the first bombs fell. When the jar had been long finished and several of the cigarettes smoked, both the elderly poet and the young longshoresman poked their heads gingerly over the shrapnel-torn line of sandbags covering the entrance to their shelter. A scene of devastation greeted them with many of their comrades groaning in bloody heaps on the white snow as several more shot each other in the back of the head to remove themselves from their mutual misery.

Jeez, said Joe softly, if we weren’t such greedy bastards, that should be us out there…

Speak for yourself, said Dickinson, who had an abhorrence of vague expressions of sentimental serendipity, unless they assisted her versifying.

Emily asked Joe to bend over and resting her notebook on his back, she may have written the final stanza of No. 759, which she hadn’t been able to bring to a conclusion since the retreat from Belchite the previous July.

‘His Comrades, shifted like the Flakes When Gusts reverse the Snow – But He was left alive Because he was a Greedy Bastard’

It still didn’t sound right…


Another kiss from death’s sweet breath?

Emily and the boys halted at daybreak on the side of a wooded hill overlooking the burning town of Gandesa. As the only surviving officer, the poetcaster had kept them going in the Great Retreats since Belchite and somehow held them together as a coherent unit. Travelling in silence east by starlight, they’d somehow managed to evade the encircling movements of the Italian cavalry and other fascist motorised groups busy mopping up other less fortunate stragglers. They’d been walking for 14 nights by now, with little but a little local tinto to sustain their wanderings, laden down as they were with the looted contents of a haberdashery they’d spotted in Azalia, with their three additional handcarts full of locally produced tin glazed earthenware purloined from a shop in Asco bringing up the rear. The contents of a pet shop in Batea had also been appropriated and many of the animals had decided to throw in their lot with the last remnants of the Lincolns in the attempt to get over the Ebro and to Brigade. The dogs, driven demented from lack of water, barked incessantly at the sun. During the night they’d pause briefly before turning their howls towards the moon. For days now they had been attracting the increasingly accurate fire of the Moroccan snipers on the little group. The poet had to admire her men, who without having had as much as a thimble of vino for the last few days, continued to carry 37 full glass goldfish bowls over steeply terraced hillsides of vines and olives in the black of night. The goldfish within were surely now impervious to the dangers they were facing from the German 88s, who even then were pounding the very hillside they were on. The more intelligent among them recognised a more immediate threat of heat exhaustion brought on by evaporation. The gunners’ aim was inadvertently assisted at every squawk from the giant Brazilian macaw, whose magnificent foliage glistened off the sun, a flaming red and green arrow which pointed to our boys’ position as if to say, ‘Sind sie blinde? Die sind ja gnau hier, idioten!’.

Every neutrino of Emily’s poetic intellect had anticipated the present predicament. In previous moments of great stress, she’d read to the men from the Bible and from a small collection of French pornography she’d looted from the pockets of a dead nun whose last wish, unbeknownst to herself, was to examine the cooling system on the poetcaster’s Maxim machine gun. Her cherished early printing of the New England cookbook Delicious Recepies Just Like Mamma Used To Make and her 1935 edition of the Good Beer Guide had  themselves become victims of war and had disappeared by the third night of their thirsty odyssey.

More was called for now, but the question remained, had these boys any more to give?

The New England poet lit up the stub of a cheroot she’d swopped for her Maxim, its 1200 rounds and several articles of her underwear stolen from Hemingway after their lusty night together in the Hotel Las Palmeras. She dismounted the zebra and looked around her, regretting, only for the second time in Spain, her leaving of Amherst and her throwing in her lot with the Comintern. For it was a rum ragged bunch indeed before her, preening at each other with their newly-acquired pets; mostly Irish it seemed, from the soft south side of Dublin.

The winner and runner-ups from the XV Brigade Conor McHale Lookalike Competition, 1937

Emily recognised a few fellow travelers on the confessional front perhaps, but nothing too High Church. One such brigadista had taken on the role of her batman since her bare-knuckle fight with Dave Doran against the flaming ruins of Caspe. McHale was his name, a diminutive cartoonist, popular with the men, who’d specialised in vintage ladies’ underwear since joining No. 2 (Terenure) Company of the Irish Republican Army at the age of six.

McHale in happier times behind the lines

McHale rummaged in one of his three suitcases and removed a battered banjo he’d shot an elderly lady for at Quinto while hastily assembling a mouth harp grip around his scrawny neck. He broke cover as he roared for his assistant to bring forth his lambeg from the handcart to the rear. His shy and chronically inhibited factotum, Hayden, felt the swizz of an 88 shell singe the lower reaches of his beard as he bent over to retrieve the 6’ diameter drum the McHale had liberated from some of his own brethren in the British Battalion (after firstly poisoning them all with paraquat). Having secured the drum to his back and the footpedal to his left heel, McHale proceeded to belly crawl across the slope of the hill against the guns of the fascists (and, it is said, a few of his own) before making a final dash to the neighbouring wooded hilltop some 400m away. He was followed by Hayden who’d been told to Dash! by the doughty old lady who had brought them this far.

McHale in less happier times, before the fascist firing squad (which he skillfully evaded)

The 88s were silenced for some fifteen minutes or so as McHale began to strike up some songs well known to the rugby-playing fraternity, finishing the recital with a sentimental rendition of Kumbaya My Lord, which of course had been written by Emily back in Amherst. As the last echoes of McHale’s extended mouth harp solo merged with the snapping of his last banjo string into the already stifling Catalan morning, he sat down and awaited his fate, pulling out an old apple pastry he’d kept over his two years in Spain from his pencil case, spitting on the encrusted dirt and bloodstains and breaking off a corner for the ever faithful Hayden. The latter presented it as a last love gift to his albino poodle Bianca, who’d accompanied her master on the short, but dangerous run across to the hilltop. Hayden’s tuba was now beyond use, having received a direct hit from an 88 during the middle 8 of The Turfman from Ardee. He placed it carefully on the taffeta rug he brought across for this purpose, beside the bullet-ridden remnants of McHale’s lambeg drum. A single tear smeared the dust on his cheek before disappearing into the facial forest of his young manhood. McHale stifled a belly laugh, uncomfortable as he was during  Hayden’s more sentimental moments.

Bianca escaped the fascists and was subsequently awarded Hero of the Soviet Union after her participation in the Battle of Stalingrad

Emily hadn’t been inactive as the fascists’ attentions had been focused on McHale’s Hill (as it was to be forever remembered in the rich historical topography of the Lincoln Battalion). A breakfast of Earl Grey and toasted crumpets was washed down by a quart of neat gin as she wryly surveyed the musical goings-on on the summit beside her. She dictated a few verses to the one comrade still in possession of sufficient fingers to hold her nickel-plated pencil, which even then glinted beautifully in the morning sunlight, an eloquent reminder for one Berber sharpshooter that indeed, there was still a war going on. Something in the music filtering through from McHale’s Hill reminded her of the location of a convent somewhere to the north where further help may have been at hand (probably indeed the faint strains of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, just audible under the gunfire). After carefully supervising the washing and packing up of her breakfast plate and cutlery, she and her men broke away in the lea of the fascist artillery and make their way northwards, but not before giving themselves a last opportunity to bid adieu to their musical comrades, who, unbeknownst to the poetess were at that moment entertaining several Gestapo officers to some old timey songs from the foothills of the Dublin Mountains on autoharp and celiste. A common love for the music of Lindisfarne encouraged the Germans to join their voices with those of McHale and Hayden in the chorus of Run For Home, where their proficiency at the key change surely saved the Irishmen’s lives.

Hayden, shorn slightly after capture but unbeaten nonetheless

The convent was spotted by 12.30. and after an hour carefully assaying the shape and body weight of several of its occupants and the  spending several more hours in the little girls’ rooms and the well-equipped gym, a deal was struck and the small group continued safely on the Ebro. There were several less mouths to feed in the convent that night and a mass was offered in thanks.

Our boys fail at the last hurdle (Robert Capa)

The crossing of the Ebro was marred however by the accurate fire of anarchist machine-gunners on the far shore, who took our boys for Francoist 5th columnists. By a stroke of luck, the moment was captured by the lens of Robert Capa who’d already paid the anarchists to aim well and low.

Emily’s leadership abilities were not ignored by Brigade, who immediately offered her a staff position, despite her previous membership of the International Workers of the World. As is well known, Emily refused to leave her comrades on the front line and rejoined her old Transmiciones unit, crossing the Ebro again that September in that one last push against the Fascists.

The comrades immediately prior to their escape from the convent


Emily Dickinson, modernity and war

Some commentators have regarded Dickinson as being one of the first modernists (Porter, 1981). This fanciful notion is at odds with the poet’s notorious antipathy towards the personalities associated with American modernity such as T.P. Barnum, Harold Lloyd and Carrie Bradshaw. Nowhere can the advance of modernity be better observed than on the battlefield and where the Spanish Civil War failed to reject such outdated concepts as the trench, the cavalry charge and the use of huge timber representations of horses on wheels containing hundreds of well-armed troops to bring a siege to a happy completion. It can however truly be said that the conflict brought the use of the heavy machine gun as an infantry support weapon to centre stage.

The Russian-manufactured Maxim was the New England poetaster’s first weapon of choice. Weighing up to 900Kg, Dickinson became sufficiently proficient in its use to enable her to shoot peanuts from the hands of children in the yard of an orphanage 4Km behind the lines at Jarama.

The poet (right), after a trip to the barber's and the delousing station, takes careful aim at the fascists

This feat impressed Ernest Hemingway enough to offer the poet a position as his personal bodyguard and secretary, a proposition the poet initially rejected out of hand. Hemingway, as ever, had the last laugh and later went on to outrageously libel the New England poetaster by depicting her in a particularly unfavourable light in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Dickinson has been generally credited with the formulation of a tactic where several belts of tracer rounds would be fired over the heads of advancing fascist troops, who, convinced that that the MGs were firing high, would break cover and advance, only for the poetess to order the guns to be lowered by 20 degrees, making mincemeat of the advancing fascists.

The poet's first reprimand came about as she succeeded in shooting a banana out of Langston Hughes' mouth at 800m

The poet remained untroubled by the edicts of the several Geneva Conventions and was known on occasion to take pot shots at fascist prisoners. This became a regular occurrence in the trenches at Jarama throughout the spring of 1937, especially noted after the poet had had a frustrating afternoon with her notebook, with nothing save a blank page of verse – where lines in her own manly hand should have terminated in a vertical series of dashes, preceded by short enigmatic phrases. These lines usually moaned about food, lack of ammunition and Ernest Hemingway’s increasingly lewd advances on her honour (written in a code designed to hoodwink the military censor).

The poetcaster's Maxim was confiscated after the accident at the children's hospital

With war comes modernity and with modernity comes fascism, reality television and sexual disappointment. Dickinson’s own advancement of the doctrine of literary modernity arrived indeed after a brief period when she became Hemingway’s lover. In fact Hemingway’s torrid relationship with the New England poetcaster was to colour all of his subsequent writings on the war; her eventual rejection would force him to find eventual solace in big game fishing and achieving mastery of the hammer dulcimer.

We will return to this in a later post.


The Dickinson Dash

Much time and effort has been wastefully expended by those analysing Dickinson’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation in her poetry, most notably the Dickinson Dash. Few critics appear to have examined her military career in Spain between 1937-39 for a different perspective on this curious feature of her verse, most preferring to delve uselessly into her relatively uneventful life in Amherst for clues as to what the dashes may mean.

By the Spring of ’38, Dickinson had undoubtedly been considering seeking a transfer from the Lincoln machine gun company  to another post in the unit, perhaps something more in keeping with her well-earned reputation in the XV Brigade as a woman of letters.

The poetcaster wept at the altar of political correctness on a daily basis

Thirteen months of hauling a heavy Maxim from the trenches of Jarama to the assault on Villanueva de Canada, the subsequent action on Mosquito Ridge and the eventual obliteration of all but one of her comrades at Teruel may well have convinced her to talk to the political commissar of the unit, a doctrinaire communist not particularly well known for his appreciation of poetry. However, her ill-advised decision immediately after the debacle at Jarama to publicly use her party card as a cigarette roach may have been held against her and her request was initially denied. (This incident has curiously not been recorded on her official military record, held in the newly opened International Brigades archive in Moscow. It is to be inferred that the poet may have been cut a certain amount of slack, due to her advancing years as much as the affection with which she was held by her comrades).

Other factors may have come into play increasing the poet’s unhappiness. Hauling the Maxim over half of the Iberian peninsula had resulted in the elongation of her left arm by over 80cm. In addition, the shuddering recoil had had the effect of making it extremely difficult for her to transcribe her verse and she was becoming increasingly dependant on a fellow New England volunteer to record her many poems of the period. His transcriptions were rarely accurate and he would occasionally deliberately mishear the poet, on one occasion substituting nipple for ripple, duodenum for pendulum and penis for pious.

Dickinson strikes a formidable shillouette in the Aragón twilight. She was yet to adopt the distinctive full-skirt look

One further factor may have influenced her decision to try and leave the machine gun company: the Maxim is a water cooled weapon and, when needs must, as they often do in wartime, her comrades were forced to use their urine as a cooling agent in the heat of battle. This of course would have been a difficult operation for the poetaster whose long skirts rendered it a particularly troublesome manoeuvre, especially when under accurate sniper fire. She was nonetheless a popular member of the peleton, afflicted as she was by Bright’s disease, she generally had little problem producing the required amount of urine to keep her own weapon cool and frequently had sufficient reserves to come to the assistance of her comrades with theirs.

Unfortunately her poor eyesight led to several of what today are referred to as friendly-fire incidents: she may one one occasion have deliberately opened fire on a staff car containing Robert Hale Merriman, the officer commanding the Lincolns. Merriman bore a remarkable resemblance to the comedian  Harold Lloyd, whom the poet despised with some virulence. It would have become obvious to her superiors that she was becoming ineffective as a machine gunner and a decision had to be made to find a new role for the poet in the battalion.

Harold Lloyd on the set of Safety Last (1924)

Harold Lloyd on the set of Safety Last (1924)

Col. Robert Hale Merriman singlehandedly took the town hall in Belchite from the fascists

Col. Robert Hale Merriman single-handedly took the town hall in Belchite from the fascists

A chance meeting with Harry Fisher and Irish anarchist Pat Read convinced her that her talents would be best used by the Republic in Transmiciones,  the unit responsible for running telephone cables from the front lines to the command posts in the rear. This was a particularly dangerous job, for apart from running the lines, she would be called on to repair them under heavy fire. Her physical fitness, her prowess as a medium distance runner and her coolness under sustained artillery attack, simultaneous aerial bombardment and accurate sniper fire would have convinced the leadership. She would soon be working alongside Fisher and Read, the latter teaching her the words to James Connolly and Joe Hill, which became her party piece at the many soirées organised by Ernest Hemingway behind the lines in his various hotel rooms. Fisher, in his own quiet way, would have taught her how to play the hammer dulcimer and the mouth organ, instruments she had mastered by the time she returned to Amherst in 1939.

She certainly would have made a curious figure in the Aragon twilight, her frail figure silhouetted against the white light generated by the artillery strikes (indeed it is said that the fascist gunners would frequently expend single shells from their 88s in her direction, in the hope of silencing her voice forever). She continued smoking her cheroots, making her an obvious target for snipers.

Dickinson (far right), with Fisher and Reid (seated) and two other unidentified members of the Transmiciones company attached to XV Brigade HQ outside Quinto, 1938

The frequent disruption of front line communications convinced the poet that a less dangerous solution was required and with the full cooperation of Fisher and Read she instigated the use of her own version of the Morse Code. Using a system of magic lanterns,  she would momentarily conceal the light from with her skirts to an agreed convoluted cipher of time lapses and pauses. Fisher and Read reluctantly followed suit, having looted suitable clothing from a shell damaged finca owned by a local fascist.

Her communications were transcribed in a notebook by Fisher and in the grand tradition of academic myopia one associates with Dickinson scholarship, his offer of the notebooks was rejected when the variorum edition of her works was published in 1955. This is a pity as her system of dashes and periods (which she modestly referred to as stops), when examined without the intervening text, transmits the true message the poet was communicating to her audience. No. 836, on one level a cheery meditation on the mortality of gods and indeed truth itself, can now be seen as a simple request for more rifle ammunition, hand grenades and morphine.

The poetcaster pauses in the heat of battle for a quick smoke

The Dickinson Dash has of course another meaning among Lincoln veterans. The poet was always the first in the queue whenever the delousing truck made it up to the unit and the men evidentally all agreed to let her run ahead, her needs indeed being greater than theirs.