Maintaining a memory
Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais
VUP Press, 2014, ISBN 9780864739735Reviewed by Ann R Key - review originally published in AARGH! issue 3
I’M NOT from New Zealand, and I'm also not much of a sophisticate when it comes to poetry. I read what I like, skim, or ignore the rest, I can’t really tell you why I like what I do or what is good about it, just that for whatever reason a particular line or idea, mood or thought spoke to me and that was enough. But don’t ask me about structure or form, or poetic traditions because I don’t know. So I might not be the best person to review Airini Beautrais’ new book of poetry, Dear Neil Roberts (Victoria Press, 2014). But I am an anarchist and I have been here in New Zealand long enough that I had been told the story of Neil Roberts before.
In case you haven’t, the short version is that on 18 November 1982 anarchist and punk Neil Roberts blew himself up with a bomb he exploded outside the Wanganui Computer Centre. The Computer Centre held a large computer which held the National Law Enforcement Data Base. That database and the computer’s ability to record, store, and analyse personal information was seen as dangerous to civil libertarians. Sound familiar? Maybe this was the beginning of New Zealand’s obsession with surveillance? Anyway, Neil Roberts was 22 at the time and shortly before he exploded the bomb he left spray-painted “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity” on the wall of a public toilet near the computer centre.
Dear Neil Roberts is a collection of interconnected poems that seeks to makes sense of not just who Neil Roberts was and why he did what he did, but what that time period was; just after the 1981 Springbok tour, Muldoon still in power, and that feeling of alienation and disenfranchisement strong. The poems try to understand of all this. The author is searching for what it means for her, what it means for New Zealand, for her children, and for young anarchists who might not be so young nor so militant anymore.
I’m not a Kiwi, and I’m not a poet, but like I said I am an anarchist and I do know about history. I think a lot about anarchist history, how important or not important it is to other anarchists and what that means; to me and more importantly for anarchism. I think a lot about history in general, about what Neil Roberts history means for the present, about how we create and consume history, and how, sometimes no matter how hard we try, we get it wrong when we try to write about history, when we try to create a historical narrative to make sense of the past. Anarchists and anarchist history are as guilty of this as anyone else. We have our martyrs, our heroes and heroines, and all too often people are more interested in the slogans and the easily digestible and self reaffirming stories, then they are in the more complicated realities and contradictory facts.
Maybe we need poetry to help us understand history. To help us understand that my three sentence summary of who Neil Roberts was and what he did will never be enough, not enough to understand all the multiple and contradictory ideas and thoughts he may have had in his head at the time, nor is it enough to read the news headlines to understand what kind of impact his words and his actions had on the people of New Zealand, from the police, to the anarchists, to a poet and young mother in
Whanganui 32 years later trying to understand how it all fits together.
Dear Neil Roberts did that for me. The poems give the reader a fuller and broader understanding of Neil Roberts and what happened, and what it may have meant, than my paragraph or paragraphs could. And they reminded me of Emma Goldman’s essay The Tragedy at Buffalo written following the 1901 assasination of US President William McKinley by Leon Czolgozs, a selfdescribed anarchist. In the essay Goldman tries to make sense of what kind of sensitive person would be so outraged by the world around him, by its inequalities, injustices, lies, and uglinesses, that he would lash out, strike a blow against that world, even if it meant destroying oneself in the process. This history, these people, they are as much a part of our anarchist history, of our movement, as marches against war and fights against police surveillance and it behooves us and our movement to try to understand that a little bit better.
Airini Beautrais has done this with Dear Neil Roberts and it’s worth all our time to read these poems.