Dear Neil Roberts. Airini Beautrais (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014). ISBN 9780864739735. RRP $25. 63pp.
Reviewed by Gabrielle McCulloch
Dear Neil Roberts is a quiet book with an explosion at its core. Published in 2014 about events in 1982, it surprised me just how much of Dear Neil Roberts feels like it was written for today. Airini Beautrais asks many of the same questions we are all asking: does the State protect us? How can we take care of each other? Can we make change happen?
The message, painted in large capital letters
With black paint from an aerosol can, was
WE HAVE MAINTAINED A SILENCE
CLOSELY RESEMBLING STUPIDITY
(“Here are the numbers”)
The collection is addressed to Neil Roberts, a young man who killed himself in 1982. Neil was a punk, a rebel protesting state surveillance. He sought to blow up Whanganui’s Police Computer Centre. Beautrais tracks the lead-up and fall out of this event, circling Neil. I read the entire collection in one sitting.
This is not how I usually read poetry; I like to sit with words, to put them down on my bedside table and pick them up again two days later. But Dear Neil Roberts propelled me onwards. Each poem leads on to the next, creating — not a narrative — but a reassessment of narrative itself. I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages. “Finding the dead”, a poem about opening archives and old texts, is followed by “Time”, which dives inside those texts. “Place”, the following poem, situates the reader at the Whanganui Police Computer Centre: the target of Neil’s protest. Only after that lead up does Beautrais, finally, allow us a glimpse into the night of Neil’s death.
What went through your head, Neil,
Waiting at the Stratford bus stop, for three and a half hours?
Did your dog, Umbrella, sniff something gone awry,
Nosing your steel-capped toes? Dogs know.
(“A nice night”).
Beautrais returns again and again to this night, looking at Neil’s political ideology, his desires, his friends. She both indulges and condemns our fascination with those ‘outside’ society. Yet, perhaps the reason I found this poetry collection so current is because Beautrais is not telling Neil’s story. She is telling her own story. She is telling the narratives we construct to explain away the things we do not wish to understand.
He didn’t like to conform with society.
I suppose he was more anti-institutional than antisocial.
He was a really nice person, very intelligent,
and he was far from insane.
Every line of the poem, “Man”, is ripped from news articles, magazines, and quotes from Neil’s neighbours. Neil becomes generalisations and assumptions, yet Beautrais is careful to never speak for Neil. The very title of the collection, Dear Neil Roberts, indicates an intimate series of letters — an attempt to reach out and communicate with someone who cannot speak back. Dear Neil Roberts is an exercise, not in remembering, but in not letting things be forgotten.
We could safety-pin things together, Neil,
we could carry that tattered old book.
Dear Neil Roberts anchored me. It reminded me that there is a lineage to these questions we’re all asking — that we have a history of social justice, of movements in Aotearoa, of people who sought to change the world but didn’t know how. Beautrais’s research shines through. These poems are grounded in history, but they also find their home in the personal. Her empathy stitches the whole book together. It is a quiet book, bursting open with hope where you wouldn’t expect it.
Gabrielle McCulloch is a student at the University of Auckland. She dislikes writing in the third person but is too afraid of abandoning bio writing conventions to stray from the format.