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.

4 Responses to “The Dickinson Dash”

  1. 1 The sky is clear
    September 16, 2008 at 3:37 pm


    The world owes you a debt of gratitude for shedding light on the hitherto little-known participation of Dickinson in the Spanish conflict. For the sake of accuracy, permit me to correct a small but important aspect of your account.

    While you describe Miss Dickinson defying the limits of her elderly frame to haul, fire and indeed cool a Maxim gun, the weapon in question was actually a Vicars’ machine gun. As they were both water-cooled this is understandably confused with similarly named Vickers gun of the same era.

    However, the Vicars’ gun predates the Vickers by a number of years having been developed in the early 1890s for use in the Sudan by the Church of England’s Archbishop Laud Brigade. This example of the ‘muscular christianity’ so beloved of the late Victorians was an attempt to prove the inherent superiority of the Christian faith to Sudanese muslims via a combination of gamesmanship, the ability to wear stout fabrics in blistering heat and the armour-like qualities of the Book of Common Prayer and Crockfords Clerical Directory when worn in the appropriate pockets.

    Prayer, tweed and leather bindings however, were not enough when facing in the massed and hostile Mahdist forces and so the Vicars’ gun (VG) was developed. Although water-cooled, the temperature of the VG was not moderated by holy water, as some wags of the day claimed. Any informed person will know that the practice of employing ‘holy’ water within Anglican ceremonies was little-used even before being expressly forbidden in the Report of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline of 1906.

    For the observant Anglican cleric, perhaps the most attractive attribute of the VG was its gross unreliability and inaccuracy. Then, as now, the difficulty of reconciling the fifth Commandment with the realities of warfare proved a struggle for the even the most elastic of clerical consciences. A gun which gave its target every prospect of living to a ripe old age proved to be a very acceptable option.

    So it was that a consignment of Vicars’ guns found their way to Spain in 1937 in the company of a squad of squeamish but zealous Belgian subdeacons. Not surprisingly, these were entirely wiped out less than a day after their arrival in Spain and the VGs were captured by Republicans who were entirely ignorant of their less-than-effective fighting qualities.

    Or were they? Is this why Miss Dickinson was issued with one? Was a comrade ironically alluding to her ‘My Life had stood – a loaded Gun’ and in particular offering her a weapon that did not actually have ‘the power to kill’.

    We will never know. But we do know that the excessive uric acid being expelled by Dickinson’s ancient bladder afflicted by Bight’s disease would have quickly corroded the gun’s mechanism. Perhaps history would have been different if she had indeed been issued with an air-cooled Maxim gun.

  2. 2 anarchaeologist
    September 17, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    Indeed. We will never know. Thank you for that.

  3. 3 rjwes3
    September 18, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    WHF??? ur full of sh*t i just gotta F from my professor cos i my paper had ur stuf about dickenson in it u guyz a loosers. she dyed a 100 years b4 that war Thanx a bunch assholes

  4. 4 anarchaeologist
    September 22, 2008 at 10:34 am

    We welcome criticism here, however trenchant. Perhaps you would be kind enough to post your paper to this site? I’m sure it constitutes an important addition to Dickinson scholarship, one which did not, perhaps, deserve an F.

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