On listening closer

I’ve heard Zaccheus Jackson Nyce perform Invicta many times, and on each successive listening, I felt I understood a little less of what the poem was about. Or, rather, I came to realize that the poem contained layers of meaning that far exceeded my initial, simplistic understanding. Was it about the genocide of colonization? Obviously. But how was that related to the other mysterious images that appear throughout the poem? One moment, the speaker is identifying with the brightness of noon and, in the next, with dandelions. Why is darkness “bubble-wrapped” and “new-born”? And why is the title of poem the Latin word for unconquered?
 
I don’t have definitive answers for any of these questions, nor do I expect to find them. Any great poem resists singular interpretation. By taking a closer listen to the complexities of Invicta, and laying out some of my theories about how the poem works, my intent is not to unravel the mystery inherent in this text, but instead to draw attention to the fascinating collision of meaning and musicality that is the trademark of Jackson Nyce's writing.
 
Where to start? The first sentence seems like as good a place as any:
 
And I would call all the world’s water traitor for the way her body brought the traders of fur, of flesh, of black hills’ gold, holding butterfly nets wove of heartstrings so cold they were able to freeze and then capture my nations’ breezes, kidnap the Blackfoot Napi, whitewash replace with a half-scalped war-painted Jesus, a strangled slit-throat Caesar, so unable to say “Et tu, Brute?” he simply mouthed the letters O and K.
 
Maybe not. There’s already too much going here. Even this first sentence could be a complete poem. Let’s try looking at it one phrase at a time.
 
And I would call all the world’s water traitor for the way her body brought the traders of fur, of flesh, of black hills’ gold...
 
The sounds of "t" and "d" when placed between vowels become an identical phoneme known as a flap. Thus, trader and traitor are homophones, cleverly used here to imply that settlers were inherently traitorous, betraying animals, people, and the land from which they extracted their goods. The speaker goes so far as to denounce “all the world’s water” as involved in the treason of transporting these traders/traitors from Europe, conveying a sense of impossibility in addressing the enormity of the situation.
 
Does the speaker earnestly want us to believe that the world's oceans, lakes, and rivers are treasonous entities, complicit in imperialism? I don't believe so. Instead he's using hyperbole to show the scale of his outrage, and – right from the start – he's creating tests to frustrate any one-to-one equivalencies between his words and their literal meaning. This is more than simple irony; it is a complex form of tricksterism that demands the listener pay close attention to both his words and their willingness to believe them at a surface level. It's a wink and a nudge, hinting that sometimes he's going to mess with you. So you better tune in, or else you'll get fooled into nodding in agreement when he's joking, or laughing when he's being deadly serious. And did you notice he didn't actually call "all the world's water" a traitor? He only declared he would be willing to. Remove "would" from the opening line and it would carry an entirely different tone.
 
...holding butterfly nets wove of heartstrings so cold they were able to freeze and then capture my nations’ breezes...
 
Why “breezes”? It's such a gorgeous choice, flipping the tone from outrage to tenderness in an abrupt and unexpected way. Still, if the poem is dedicated to laying bare the ruin of colonization, wouldn’t it make more sense to find a rhyme that ended on something to do with territory? We’ve already seen references to water and earth (through “black hills’ gold”) in this poem and, now, the element of air is being invoked. We're gaining a sense of the encompassing nature of colonization – but there’s something else happening here.
 
...kidnap the Blackfoot Napi, whitewash replace with a half-scalped war-painted Jesus, a strangled slit-throat Caesar, so unable to say “Et tu, Brute?” he simply mouthed the letters O and K.
 
It’s only through the rest of the sentence that we gain a recognition that “breezes” symbolizes an independence of spirit, captured by the frozen heartstring butterfly net of the traders/traitors. Christianity has invaded the indigenous psyche, symbolized by the Blackfoot Napi – the old man, hero, demigod, helper and trickster of the Blackfoot people – who is re-costumed as a “half-scalped, war-painted Jesus” and “a strangled, slit-throat Caesar”. Moreover, breezes symbolize both freedom and voice. The ability to move freely as the wind is stolen, as is the very air necessary to breathe and to speak. Thus, the Napi can only mouth his compliance. Cultural identity has been "half-scalped," emphasizing its mutilation, and through "strangled" and "slit-throat," there's an emphasis that the ability to breathe and speak has been targeted and violently attacked. In this sense, "my nations' breezes" could be interpreted as the oral traditions of indigenous people, the multitude of songs and stories of which the Napi is just one example. The attack on them, the capture of the "nations' breezes," could mean the suppression of selfhood that is derived from cultural heritage.
 
“Et tu, Brute?” drives home the point of a deadly, unexpected betrayal, but this Latin phrase also brings with it an echo of the title Invicta. Caesar could be making an appearance here to denote the decline of a great people (after the death of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire lurched into increasing chaos and fragmentation). But the listener is also being subtly asked to consider what part of indigenous traditions might remain unconquered, or whether the title could be ironic considering the devastation of colonization?
 
And as today’s stray bullets pull stars from the sky through bubble-wrapped, new-born darkness, I see that midnight is them and the noon is me, but now bright mind's lights have ruined the moon like the whites ruined Wounded Knee.
 
The allegory in this sentence makes it one of the most beautiful in the entire poem. I’ll tell you what I hear, but the enigmatic symbolism in this line leaves it open to any number of interpretations.
 
Starting at the end of the sentence, Wounded Knee refers to the massacre of the Lakota people in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek. The traveling Lakota families had been captured by U.S. cavalrymen and, when the soldiers began to confiscate all of their rifles, shots were fired. Most stories say that the massacre began when Black Coyote – a deaf Lakota warrior – struggled against the soldiers as they tried to disarm him and his rifle accidentally discharged. The soldiers used the opportunity to kill over 300 Lakota people, even pursuing on horseback and executing those who attempted to run away.
 
The stray bullet at Wounded Knee was used as the excuse for a massacre, and the mention of “today’s stray bullets” in the poem connects the dots between the current military and police oppression of indigenous people and the genocide that began hundreds of years ago.
 
The stray bullet also sparks an epiphany in the speaker. The bullet pulls down a pinprick of light – a star – from the night sky. This could be interpreted as the spirit of an indigenous person who has been murdered. As the star is pulled down, its light engulfs the speaker who realizes that “noon is me” and can no longer see the moon due to “bright mind’s lights”. The light going on – the realization at play – results in reordering the binary. No longer does the speaker identify with the night, but with the day. He also sees the night as “bubble-wrapped new-born darkness”, perhaps because he realizes it has been repackaged by a colonial mentality that has attempted to reframe how these stars (read: indigenous people) should be seen. This leaves the speaker’s people, metaphorically, in the dark.
 
The mentions of night and darkness also recall the first stanza of William Ernest Henley's Invictus:
 
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
 
Just as in Henley's poem, the speaker is covered in a night whose darkness is emphasized and, similarly, circumstance has created, as Henley puts it, a "place of wrath and tears." But unlike Henley's protagonist, the speaker of Invicta realizes that the darkness is a form of packaging, that his true nature is noon; he emits light and truth, while the darkness is the traitors/traders who are midnight. This allusion to Henley continues to play out further along in the poem when we are challenged to figure out what remains unconquerable to the forces of colonization.
 
But why does this realization that "noon is me" ruin the moon? Of course daylight obscures the weak light of the moon, but what is the metaphorical thrust of this implication? When the speaker realizes "midnight is them", it could imply that the moon – part of the night – is false. After all, it gives off a secondhand, reflected light, perhaps in the same sense that the truth has been reconfigured in a false light by colonizers (remember the re-costumed Napi). This helps to unpack the midnight/noon, night/day binary that has been flipped. The sudden realization triggered by the murder of yet another indigenous person (“today’s stray bullets pull stars from the sky”) transports the speaker from living in the false light of a colonial mentality (night) into the full light of his own truth (noon). Furthermore, the moon could symbolize a poetic softness that is now impossible for the speaker to feel in light of this epiphany; seeing the full scale of the physical and psychic imperialist massacre.
 
They pruned our freedom, clip-snipped, quick-flipped, bonsai-tree-d ‘em, and now we, unneeded like weeds in the garden of Eden, but me, I ain’t never seen a field of dandelions trying to grow into roses.  
 
This is my favourite stanza in the poem for the final phrase, “I ain’t never seen a field of dandelions trying to grow into roses." It has the riddle-like qualities of a proverb and the wry, sardonic wisdom of seasoned defiance.
 
The botanical metaphors are sequenced for cumulative impact, each one densely packed with symbolism. The pruned freedom could be the vast ancestral territories reduced to the tiny pockets of the reservation system. It also could be the psychic and cultural pruning practiced in residential schools, which bound and clip-snipped away the natural continuation of indigenous ideas, instead shaping them (and the children who would naturally inherit these effects) into something that suited the aesthetic preferences of the imperial gardener. Native lives have been recast as "unneeded like weeds" due to a settler mentality that sees the 'New World' (even though it's only new to them) as an untouched garden of Eden to be modeled into their own Christian utopia. Dandelions are considered weeds, and so are the indigenous inhabitants of the land in the eyes of the imperial gardener. The objective of all the pruning and snipping, the final phrase suggests, has been to demand: that which is indigenous, such as a dandelion, grow into something it is not: a rose, which is a longtime symbol of English culture, denoting the settler mentality.
 
God knows Columbus needed no Moses to split the sea of my red people.
 
The first three lines have been extended by multiple conjunctions. This short sentence changes the pacing of the poem. “God knows” continues the sardonic humour embedded in the first line. By flipping between lyric epiphany and sarcastic disgust, the tone of the poem gains a momentum of variation and emphasizes the stark contrast between the beauty of what existed before with the brutality of how that beauty has been mutilated by colonialism.
 
He knew enough to just trust in the strength of the steeple, the breadth and length of cathedrals, God’s gospel-glossed needles, force-feeding Kanata’s pre-bleeding crimson Indian summer evenings, leaving me grieving that even as we speak our spoken words, these thieves are still weaving history through tree trunks, searching for reasons to clear-cut the psyche.
 
There’s another irony being set up between the supposed works of god, the miracles that were performed through his prophets – such as Moses’ parting of the Red Sea – and the religion used in service of the conquest, which was started by Columbus and continued by the explorers that followed him to places like Kanata (the pre-anglicized variant of Canada). The physicality of cathedrals, their "breadth and length," intrudes into the landscape as tools of colonial dominance. We’re also being asked to connect the image of the steeple to the “gospel-glossed needles," which are tied to the weaving of “history through tree trunks”. I take the word “reasons” in the final phrase to mean self-justification, as in, the thieves – who are the same traitors from earlier in the poem – will search out any reason they can find “to clear-cut the psyche”.
 
I think we all know that if Mikey didn’t like his bowl of Life, they would’ve let him starve.
 
This line ties into the mention of “force-feeding” in the previous line. In the 1972 Life cereal commercial, two boys force Mikey to try a cereal they don’t trust. Mikey eats it, and they exclaim “He likes it!” Similarly, Columbus and his descendants have forced indigenous peoples to ingest the imperial mentality and, if they didn’t embrace the colonial version of Life entirely and immediately, they were systematically subjected to starvation. All of this is condensed into one brilliant comic line. But if you're laughing without thinking more deeply, then you've missed half the point. The tricksterism of the speaker is at work again, presenting double entendres that you can easily miss if you don't pause to consider them.
 
And still we wonder at the marvels of our carven-nation, segre–, degra–, congregation, and still the throngs they hasten to sing songs of race and reformation once sung by the lungs of long-dead masons.
 
The Freemasons in England were the drivers of British imperialism. Their legacy continues in the “congregation” of secular society that celebrates “the marvels” (again, the tone switches to sarcastic disgust) of nations carved from the Americas through racial segregation and hierarchy.
 
So if here’s the place and now’s the time, you run your race while I fast and pray for mine, and hunger for the day when I can release the images of my people proud and free from the collective walls of imagination…
 
The speaker has traveled through the ongoing history of colonialism and landed in the present moment, but he accepts his current position in space and time with reticence. Still, the colonial imperative of running the rat race of capitalism is rejected in favour of a fast, presumably to cleanse from the longstanding force-feeding of imperialist ideology. The “collective walls of imagination” have been referenced throughout the poem in different forms. First, they were the frozen butterfly net heartstrings that captured “my nations’ breezes”, then they were the constrictions that “bonsai tree’d” indigenous freedom, and throughout, they were the Christianity or “gospel-glossed needles” that have rewoven history and looked for reasons to “clear-cut the psyche”.
 
The idea that “images of my people proud and free” could be released hints that there are realms of the indigenous psyche that are imprisoned, yet unconquered. These images parallel the idea of an "unconquerable soul" in Henley's Invictus.
 
... but right now North America’s just a fucked up fancy restaurant and I’m looking forward to the day when I can’t get a reservation.
 
The motif of feeding and fasting culminates in the final line with a rejection of both the excesses of colonial capitalism and also the constriction – both physical and psychological – that is has imposed upon indigenous people.
 
The poem ends on a pun, just as it began with one (traitor/trader). Another interpretation of the poem’s title, Invicta, could be that the mental agility demonstrated by the speaker is what remains unconquered or unconquerable. Despite all the havoc that has been wreaked, the conquest of colonization fails to subdue the fierce defiance and brilliant intelligence that the poem has demonstrated. The title encourages us to connect it to Henley’s and yet subverts this connection through alteration. Although “Invictus” and “Invicta” carry the exact same meaning in Latin, “Invictus” is the singular masculine form of the word, while “Invicta” is both the singular feminine and gender-neutral plural form.
 
The word "Invicta" is also more directly linked to the idea of empire through the motto Roma Invicta (unconquered Rome). Considering that the poem is about the collective history of indigenous people, it makes sense that the inclusive, plural form is chosen. Spurning “Invictus” in favour of “Invicta” could be a way of rejecting individualism by turning the focus to a more collective viewpoint.
 
The title could also be an extension of the sardonic contempt found elsewhere in the poem. Nothing remains unconquered, colonialism is a despicable fait accompli, and the Latin term is used ironically. After all, Columbus was an Italian and the history of European imperialism owes everything to the Roman Empire. It all hinges on the final line and whether or not "looking forward to the day" is a genuine expression of hope and conviction about the fact that a different future is possible, or an ironic condemnation of how "fucked up" and utterly hopeless the entire situation has become.
 
Invicta is one of the few poems Zaccheus wrote that did not include a personal story. He had a strong suspicion of rhetoric and moralizing, and he often found more room to portray moral complexities in the narrative mode. Reducing Invicta to a rhetorical poem with an uplifting moral message about a social issue ignores the carefully designed strains of tricksterism that have been shading much of the poem with irony. The final line is a culmination of the genius of this approach.
Watch the poem in action below.
 
Chris Gilpin has featured at poetry slams and writers' festival across North America as a spoken word artist. He is Executive Director of Vancouver Poetry House and co-founder of the East Van Poetry Salon. He has published two chapbooks: Faux Reals and Artistic Yelling for Drunk People. Chris gives his thanks to Jillian Christmas and the Zaccheus Legacy Project for the ongoing work in transcribing Zaccheus' work. Specifically, thank you to Jillian to clarifying the reference to the Blackfoot Napi, and its cultural implications. Thank you to Luna Allison for diligently editing this article and suggesting several ideas that unlocked new avenues of interpretation.