Kevin Prufer

Imperator Victus

Big guns again
No speakee well
But plain.

Again, again—
And they shall tell
The Spanish Main

The Dollar from the Cross.

Big guns again.
But peace to thee,
Andean brain.

Again, again—
Peace from his Mystery
The King of Spain,

That defunct boss.

Big guns again,
Imperator Inca—


In 1931, after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hart Crane left his job at Fortune magazine and moved to Mixcoac, an artists' colony in Mexico, intending to write a sort of Latin-American equivalent of The Bridge. He stayed a year, completing many of the poems that would eventually become Key West: An Island Sheaf. On April 27, 1932, returning to the United States to settle his father's estate, Crane leapt from the stern of the S.S. Orizaba into the sea.

Between these dates, Crane probably wrote "Imperator Victus," a strange, sing-song poem with an unnerving, violent undercurrent. On the surface, the poem's subject appears to be the sad fate of Atahualpa, the last Incan Emperor, who in 1532 was defeated in battle by his half brother, Huáscar, captured by Spaniards, and convicted of plotting against Pizarro. Though Atahualpa arranged in his captivity for a large ransom in exchange for his safety, he was nevertheless executed by garotte in 1533.

Almost exactly 400 years later, at the time of the poem's composition, the world was in crisis. In 1931, the Spanish monarchy was overthrown, presaging the Spanish Civil War. In 1932, the newly elected Hindenberg revoked the ban on the SS and SA, followed, in January, 1933, by Hitler's election to Chancellor of Germany. From the safety of Mexico, Crane must have been aware of these events, must have read and spoken about them with the likes of Katherine Anne Porter and David Alfao Sigueiros, both of whom were also in residence at Mixcoac.

One of the delightful difficulties of the historical poem is that it exists in two times at once. On the one hand, it recreates for us a time that is passed—in this case, a time of imperial savagery, of the plunder of the Spanish Main and the end of the Inca. On the other hand, the poem lives in the poet's present, here against the backdrop of renewed, violent rumblings in Europe.

In the case of "Imperator Victus," it's hard not to draw a connection. "Big guns again," Crane writes, "No speakee well / But plain. // Again, again—," connecting the violent Incan past with his foreboding present, attributing the causes of both to a conflation of "the Dollar" with "the Cross," or our inability to separate our imperial acquisitiveness from those higher values we claim to espouse.

No one speaks in "Imperator Victus" save the "big guns," and they address only the Spanish Main and the defeated Atahualpa, who, long dead, cannot answer. Crane tosses aside the aggressor, "His Mystery / The King of Spain // That defunct boss," as though he were nothing more than a mafioso or petty dictator. Our sympathies lie with the vanquished and betrayed, the casualty of a long-passed war.

Much of the poem's power lies in its music. The short lines, the striking rhymes work against its unsettling message, throwing it in relief. In this way, it reminds me of some of the best work of Stevie Smith or Elizabeth Bishop, both of whom sometimes sing their most disconcerting poems in delightfully inappropriate rhythms and rhymes. The violence becomes unnerving, the threat, perverse.

"Imperator Victus" is rarely referred to in the critical literature on Crane. When it is mentioned, it's quickly tossed aside as, in the words of critic Samuel Hazo, "more of a preface than a complete poem." A quick internet search turned up only two hits on the poem, both of which refer not to any Crane scholarship but to a German electronic punk band called Tarwater who used the poem (quite effectively) as lyrics to a song.

What struck me on reading the poem anew, though, was that unlike many lesser historical poems, this one seems to exist in a third time—our own. It's hard for me not to see in "his Mystery / The King of Spain," who cannot tell "The Dollar from the Cross," our corrupted, violent president and his administration's threats against Iraq.

These days, I, too, am writing historical poems. Like Crane, I'm playing with the idea of poems working in a few times simultaneously, of mixing the historical past with the present to throw light on both through implied comparison. My own poems take place in both ancient Rome and modern, urban America. Slaves, gladiators, helicopters, and automobiles mix together in landscapes both ancient and modern. The Empire falls as tourists unfurl blankets on a busy beach and a young man eats dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Everywhere is the threat of political decline and ruin. Perhaps, this is why "Imperator Victus" appealed to me. It is a model for my own work.

When I came upon the poem on the third floor of the library at Central Missouri State University, in a book that had not been checked out since 1975, I was struck by its eerie prescience. I read it there, in the dark, empty aisle just before the library closed, for the first time in several years. I vaguely remembered having seen it long ago in graduate school, though it had made little impression on me then. Now, it seemed vital and true. I wanted to fold it into a letter and mail it to the White House.

© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review