Big guns again
No speakee well
And they shall tell
The Spanish Main
The Dollar from the Cross.
Big guns again.
But peace to thee,
Peace from his Mystery
The King of Spain,
That defunct boss.
Big guns again,
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 passedin 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
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 timeour
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
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.