Book Review: Flow: Whanganui River Poems, by Airini Beautrais

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_flow_whanganui_river_storiesFlow is a collection of poems centred around the Whanganui River. In her dedication, Airini Beautrais tells us that this work is not a grand attempt to track the history of the river and its people. Rather, it is more of an attempt at a collage of stories: “some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human”.

The collection starts with part one, which is titled Catchment. This section covers an array of stories from different areas around the Whanganui River. Beautrais provides a location and a date as a subtitle to each poem. For example, in Clear Away, Beautrais gives the label Ōrākau 1864. In this piece, Beautrais brings us back to a world of conflict and describes the bodies of fallen soldiers, still bleeding. The poems in this section also stretch all the way to the present. In Huihui (subtitle Taumarunui 2014), Beautrais portrays a memory close to the river itself. Beautrais describes how “the water answers yes / to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria: / it is moving faster than you can walk; / it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom”. In the scene, women glide by in kayaks, a jet boat passes.

The next section of Flow is titled A Body of Water. Here, Beautrais provides more indefinite scenes involving the Whanganui River. In Snow, Beautrais beautifully describes how “The first snow falls / like sugar, sown / breath-thin / on each blank mountain’s face”. Her soft description perfectly portrays the wholesome memory and excitement that comes with the first snowfall. This section also contains pieces describing animals that live in the river. Her poem Tuna (subtitle Longfin eel / Anguilla dieffenbachii) supplies a portrayal of these fish, describing how “The leaf-shaped larvae drift the currents, turn to glass eels once / they’re home”.

Finally, Beautrais moves into poems within the town of Whanganui itself in her third section, The Moving Sand. Her piece PechaKucha perfectly describes the conflict of feelings that can arise with the journey home. She tells how, “When you drive / in, on the highway there’s this sign: Welcome Home. / And I get this sinking feeling, every time I arrive, / that I’ll be stuck there forever”. Home may be a familiar place, but it is also charged with memories that can pull you back, sometimes unwillingly.

In this way, Flow is a collection based around the Whanganui River, but it is about more than just the river itself. Beautrais also expands to stories around it, delving into the past as well as the present. She tells of the nature within it as well, and how it changes and lives with the river. Finally, human emotions and memories round off the collection at the end. As Beautrais tells us, “stories collect around bodies of water because people live there”. In Flow, she proves that these stories are not limited to one realm: there are stories to be found in many different worlds, whether they are human or not.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Flow: Whanganui River Stories
by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561148

Book Review: Dear Neil Roberts, by Airini Beautrais

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, cv_dear_neil_robertsbut 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
ISBN 9780864739735

This book will be launched at the Southern Cross in Wellington on Thursday 20 November. 

Tuesday poem: The land of sleep by Airini Beautrais

Eventually, we will go back to the land of sleep. A car passes on the road maybe every three minutes. Small noises surround us – the insistent communication of birds, the flight of an insect, sun expanding on the roof iron.

The trees outside take half a year to make their little helicopters; the wind browns their leaves. Their roots raise the asphalt. In the hallway there is so much beautiful wood. A tap in the never-used bath drips a brown stain down the yellow enamel.

From the centre of the room comes the sound of breathing. Perhaps you have been asleep for a hundred years. Is there in fact a person under all that hair? Can the world really be filled with people building houses, patching holes, ploughing fields by hand?

The baby turns in its watery capsule. The first sound we hear is probably the workings of our mother’s intestines. Meals go around like freight trains; you keep time by them. Words have no meaning to you, but you are starting to know their sounds.

by Airini Beautrais
From Western Line (page 55)
Published by Victoria University Press
Used with the permission of Victoria University Press

This poem is part of the Tuesday Poem Scheme