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. 

Book Review and win: The Land Ballot, by Fleur Adcock

cv_the_land_ballotAvailable in bookstores nationwide on October 3.
Be in to win a copy here: 

Fleur Adcock is a self-professed hitch-hiker, time-traveling to resurrect the lives of her forebears. The Land Ballot is a series of poems about relocation, where people are reborn or dislocated, contingent on their ability to coalesce with their surroundings. Adcock recounts the movement of her grandparents − from Manchester to Mount Pirongia, New Zealand. Here, characters tussle with the wilderness around them, breaking in the land, instating fences and turning native forest into workable pasture.

The settlement occupied by her grandparents is pitted against natural forces. Boundaries between gentrified country and bush-clad terrain shift and overlap. Ragwort trespasses into cattle land. Kea, the ‘demonic parrots’, attack sheep. Land is charted, divided, and land is cursed. Elemental forces are irrepressible and envelop the structures poised against them − ‘The school was a wooden box on a hill, surrounded by weather’.

This is a land of temperamental ‘fruit and honey’. The soil is ‘bush-sick’ and the fruit produced are ’empty, bladder-like plums’. However, it is conceded that ‘there are no tigers in this forest’, and that the land is perhaps less hostile, and more malleable, than ‘jungle’ elsewhere.

There is a certain charm about the community’s quaintness. Adcock’s concern is with the parochial, but her reach extends beyond the isolated farming community. This is about family, and the tenacity of individuals, and the realisation of dreams. Cyril, Adcock’s father, is lent a first-person voice in the narrative, and he grows into the story’s hero, who will ultimately put down ‘a deposit on eight acres in Drury for (his family’s) rescue’.

Adcock’s tone is conversational, and the memoir she hatches is unambiguous, perhaps frustratingly so for some readers. Adcock is a magpie of text. There are snippets from the Waipa Post, inventories of building materials, an excerpt from the School Journal of 1917. But Adcock’s voice is her own. There is a rare clarity, and a lightness of touch about this collection. Adcock’s new work is a wistful backwards glance, a nostalgia for a time that precedes her.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

The Land Ballot
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739711