Dear Neil Roberts
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
Both collections under review here act as witness to politically charged historic events. One pivots on a suicide, one on a murder. Despite the way each book edges towards psychological release, the deaths of Joe Kum Yung and Neil Roberts unsettle still, as if shadows could whisper: “Listen: / there’s a hunger in the air. It’s reciting prophecies” (‘(Static, Spool)’, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes).
I’m old enough to remember headlines about the central event from Airini Beautrais’s book, Dear Neil Roberts. I was 13 at the time of the 1982 bombing of the Whanganui Police Computer, and politically still very naïve. The news that an anarchist (strange word to me then) had blown himself up just along the road, really, filled me with dread. I’d like to claim retrospective maturity, but at the time I had little understanding of it as political protest. Beautrais’s sequence of poems does an artfully compressed job of placing Roberts’s death in its context, which was the social climate of high unemployment, price and wage freeze, avid suspicion of the police post-Red Squad, and ramped-up government surveillance, which the National Law Enforcement system (or the Whanganui Police Computer) quintessentially embodied. Beautrais also gives an achingly human, if necessarily incomplete, portrait of the 22-year-old.
From its piercingly well-chosen epithets, to the final poem compressing protest, parenthood, poetry itself, computing, and history’s return, the book is compulsively readable. It’s tempting to sprint-read for plot, explanation, as the language is, on first impression, journalistic, sometimes even teen-casual, demotic (“bum flap”, “went nuts”, “monumental fuck up”, “that creepy, lived-in feeling”). There is also a surface appearance of a numbed-down evenness of tone, whether the poem explores past or present. Yet re-readings call up poetic effects easily missed in that first gobbling-for-narrative; Beautrais’s work is both expository and, when re-read slowly, nuanced, interrogative, haunted. The links between poems, as our knowledge of Roberts accretes, freight certain apparently tender phrases with sadness and horror’s frisson:
My second son will be born soon.
Therefore future. Therefore past,
all our skins and skins.
From Beautrais’s explorations, Roberts emerges not as some mindless aggressor, but as a deep-thinking and sensitive individual. The “found” poem, composed of newspaper and personal accounts of him, builds a sense of his character that we mourn afresh. It seems to me that, as the poet-archivist weaves in the anxious wait for her child’s birth, her quest becomes an act of muted maternal pining for the lost young man. There is also a darker identification, in glimpses of a similar struggle with helplessness, and how to speak back potently to authority.
As the poems sift through headlines, or delineate place, the author carefully tries to establish facts and work through the known to get to the central mystery that remains, like “the taniwha, lying in shadow”. What was Neil’s state of mind, what were his real intentions? Beautrais lays bare all the paradoxes behind and within his actions.
In “A sad, flippant kind of nihilism”, we get the clearest definition of the anarchist ideals that presumably attract Quaker-raised Beautrais. Yet the difficulties in achieving these ideals surely lie behind the lines where, she later says, life is “a pleasant pointlessness / we have allowed ourselves” – as if death is the opposite: having purpose, significance. The vacillations between thanatos and the will to live make the book all the more moving as it latently asks, was Roberts’s death honourable? Is it nobler to die for one’s ideals than to muddle along, as most of us do, chewing away at the questions, trying not to submit to despair? Or is muddling along the triumph? Fellow anarchist Sam Buchanan’s blunt words in “Epilogue” offer relief: “Neil would have been a damn sight more useful alive.” This seems reinforced by the poet’s wry, affectionate, optimistic conclusion: “We could safety-pin things together, Neil, / we could carry that tattered old book.”
Throughout, the poet writes, researches and crucially, talks her way out of helplessness, as she discusses Neil with friends and people who knew him – moving forward in collective action. The entire book is disturbed by Neil’s choice, and shows us art’s ability to interrogate power, if the struggle against authority is the struggle against erasure and social amnesia. It offers its own way up from despair’s vortex: through poems as regenerative, social acts that embody the opposite to submission and paralysis.
I read Chris Tse’s collection after Beautrais’s – travelling deeper into the past, in one sense. The central death in Tse’s collection is a racist murder, and the book raises many troubling questions about how we construct history, and how it so often seems built on exploitation, denial, oversight, neglect, loss of agency.
I mightn’t have understood anarchism at 13; but local, anti-Asian sentiment is something I encountered much younger, from beloved grandparents, whose attitudes bewildered me. (Certain warnings seemed so surreal I thought they must have been nonsense verse.) Tse’s themes feel all too present: anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments being less a factor of generation than political outlook.
With Tse’s work we enter an ornate textual space. Where the temptation in Beautrais’s book is to speed-read, in Tse’s it is to rub and rub at the jacquard weave of description, as understanding rises more slowly through the intricate phrasing. The risk here, I think, is that the progression from one poem to the other can feel less urgent, as we sometimes get tangled in the tiny stitches, forward and back, of some syntactical loops. Some aphoristic lines are sombrely memorable: “We cannot hide from ourselves in the dark.” Yet there are also passages that ask us to labour intensively for the nuggets of semantic weight:
The echoes of heartache must exist
just as a serpent’s trail will taint
the things we neglect
if we turn from instinct.
That “just as” suggests a simple, even precise, clarifying link, yet it’s less stepping-stone than serpentine path from the adverbial phrase. This serious-minded deployment of abstraction arises partly because Tse wrestles with difficult subjects: morality, cultural and historical notions of propriety and shame; delusion; dehumanisation; and questions of how the Cantonese immigrant and goldminer, Joe Kum Yung, could have sustained intrinsic self-worth when emotionally exiled, impoverished, and physically crippled by misfortune and dire work conditions.
His early suggestion that Joe Kum Yung might be “co-dependent” with his murderer is discomforting. The book continuously, consciously wrestles with the dreadful truth that we really only know of Joe because the murder pulls him out of the anonymity the Anglo-colonial culture of the time preferred and deliberately legislated for. The quest to fill out Joe’s biography so that he becomes more than a wandering ghost often renders up profound sadness:
The Ghost Who Wanders, what do you seek?
You find nothing.
Yet there is an imaginative fire of revenge and righting of balance in the vision of Joe Kum Yung’s ghost haunting Lionel Terry, the increasingly deranged white supremacist:
To kill a man
is to marry a shadow
[….] he stares at you with eyes
as wide open as graves.
Tse’s forms shift fluidly from prose-like blocks to poems that use, say, stepped lines and expanding blank space to mimic the new immigrant’s sense of instability, a falling away of confidence. Intensifying adjectival richness and metaphor take us deeper into Joe’s disappointment and isolation – the most lavish language reserved for him, not his murderer: another aesthetic righting of the scales.
Tse revives Joe’s story so that it haunts our conscience: what do we still silence, ignore, pre-judge? After some of the more nebulous abstractions, the clear-spoken, direct ending is all the more scalp-shivering in its belief in the presence and release of the spirit. Spoken to Joe’s ghost, it also implicates the reader. Subtly, all the moral questions are turned to address us from the pale headstone of the page:
Even if his name still hooks to yours
there will be voices to say your name
to clear the way. The rest is up to you.
Emma Neale is a Dunedin poet and novelist.