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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.