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‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper’, claims Eliot in his Prufrock. But Neil Roberts went out with a bang. Literally. On a November day in 1982, Roberts walked up to the Whanganui Police Computer Centre and blew himself up.
In Airini Beautrais’ third book of poetry, Dear Neil Roberts, we are temporal wayfarers, consigned to the early eighties to stitch together a picture of this man and the world of which he lived on the periphery. Beautrais is born weeks after Roberts dies, and there is a sense of frustration here, a sense that people are out of time. We are late to the party. The guests have gone but fragments remain. We make the most of what we have − a message from an aerosol can, a scrap of tattoo, memories recounted by fellow anarchists. The rest is speculative and more than once Beautrais asks ‘what went through your head, Neil?’ .
Roberts is a human placeholder, a young and revolutionary John Doe. ‘The thing is, Neil, you are all of us,’ is Beautrais’ titular suggestion. But Roberts has something in addition to ordinary loneliness. He is a person who prescribed his own exit from the world, who even prophesised his death in a tattoo − ‘this punk won’t see 23’. Roberts was a timebomb, but one whose detonation was only to end his own world, and cause a small ripple in New Zealand’s cultural pond. Roberts is ‘not in Michael Kings’s The Penguin History of New Zealand‘, nor in ‘The Dirty Decade: New Zealand in the Eighties‘. His is a bang which scarcely registers as a footnote to New Zealand history.
The story of Neil Roberts is that of a man raging against ‘the state, that strange machine’. It is a tale about ‘a young man without hope’. Yet this is not passive resignation − there is something premeditated and purposeful about his final graffiti statement, something despairing, yet something which also assumes society can be roused from its slumber. ‘WE HAVE MAINTAINED A SILENCE CLOSELY RESEMBLING STUPIDITY’.
Dear Neil Roberts is an eerie read, a crawl through the dark crevices of the New Zealand’s psyche. It is narrative poetry, poetry as documentary, and perhaps a better yarn than it is poetry per se. But this is a story into which I’m very pleased to have been lured. Beautrais transports us from 2014 to 1982 and back again, and hints of a continued struggle against the state and the systems that it subsumes. But, suggests one of Beautrais’ interviewees, ‘we don’t have to blow it up!… We can also build’. Roberts is not clearly a hero, more an iconoclast. In this collection Beautrais shines light on a shadow that largely passed under the nation’s radar.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Dear Neil Roberts
by Airini Beautrais
Victoria University Press