From the apocalypse-tinged meditations of his first collection, The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), to the frustrations of love dissected in his second, In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009), to the more formal and cinematic engagement with darker subject matter in his third, Film Noir (2011)— Jeff Rath has carved out for himself a distinctive poetic terrain. Each of his books constructs a metaphoric landscape that allows associations to accumulate into something larger. This effect is perfected and complicated in The Old Utopia Hotel, which was published in June of 2016 by Iris G. Press. In this most recent collection, Rath inverts the idea of the apocalyptic by layering darkness with love, and working to contextual the violence, frustration, and existential confusion of ordinary people within the larger machinations of history.
The Old Utopia Hotel is undoubtedly the peak of Rath’s decade-long poetic project. The slim collection of 24 new poems realizes what Rath has been grasping for in his earlier work—it constructs a convincing analog for what happens when we trick ourselves into believing the uniquely human folly that we can, if we try hard enough, bend the world to our will. That metaphor takes shape in the last section of the book, where a series of poems describes the life cycle of an old hotel, its barroom, its coffeeshop-diner, and the voices of the disenfranchised patrons that haunt it.
The origin of the word “utopia” in English comes from Thomas More’s famous satire, Utopia (1516), which described a theoretically ideal country. But, More constructed the word for his ideal nation from the Greek roots “ou” and “topos,” literally meaning “no place.” So, the ideal place is also the place that cannot be. The Old Utopia Hotel is situated—or perhaps another word would be better (lodged, embedded, entrenched?)—within this tension between perfection and limitation, between dream and illusion. And it is precisely this positioning that makes the collection so deeply universal and so tenderly human.
Jeff Rath reading from The Old Utopia Hotel at the Midtown Scholar Scholar Bookstore, in Harrisburg, PA.
Rath’s powerful metaphor of decaying hospitality, is so resonant perhaps because it captures Pennsylvania’s intense sense of metaxis—of being lost in between, of being in a state of constant suspension. This sensation is one Rath knows all too well as a lifelong Pennsylvanian. But, let’s think about Pennsylvania for a moment: it is neither coast nor heartland, northern nor southern, conservative nor liberal, innovative nor stuck in the past, urban nor rural. It is a state people tend to drive through on their way to other places. It is the state that has seen its heyday and is now floating uncertainly through the aftermath. The glories of colonial Philadelphia, of being a Quaker-inspired religious sanctuary, of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s phenomenal wealth, of the anthracite coal region, and of Bethlehem and Pittsburgh steel—all boons to the rise of the modern industrial era—are simply gone. The Pennsylvania of today (as well as many other places around the United States) lacks a coherent narrative frame to help shape a regional identity, and so, many of its citizens—like the folks who frequent the Old Utopia Hotel—have no place to go other than straight through the cracks.
Jacques Derrida, in his famous lecture on the subject, stated that “The act of hospitality can only be poetic.” What he means, perhaps, is that in the postmodern, late-capitalist world, the idea of being hospitable is alien, but somehow also deeply, beautifully embedded in all of us. From a certain perspective, an increasingly post-human world means that courtesy to our fellow travelers—friendly public gatherings, collective faith, communal identity—are less and less meaningful. For Rath, poetry is a way of both navigating that loss through elegy, while also savoring the last vestiges of hospitality that we have left—a familiar place to have a beer or a cup of coffee, a place to play a Coltrane song on a juke, a place to reflect on life’s screw-ups, wrong turns, and its occasional, miraculous moments of grace. Perhaps, it is enough to assume that those who frequent such places at the Old Utopia do so for the same reasons: to wonder “How the hell did we get here?”. This question is the battered heart of The Old Utopia Hotel, rendered firmly in the tradition of writers who are willing to explore the underbelly of American society—think Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesmen, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, or Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots.
Yet, as much this book is so tightly unified by its brooding theme, it also displays Rath’s incredible poetic range. He can handle the bureaucracies of history, as in “Company Town” and “Visionaries.” He can start a poem with a sidewalk chalk image and bend it into an uncanny spiritual jeremiad, as in “Martyr Fish.” He can be funny, as in “Desperados of the Heart,” or bitingly political as in “Psalm.” And he can, for all his serious intensity, render the tendernesses of human connection so perfectly, as in “The Way It Will Be” and “Coffee Shop Miracle.” Rath makes his talent for metaphor twist and turn and work for multiple ends within a larger vision. There are simply very few poets who can do that, let alone do it convincingly.
Rath’s body of work is a poignant mythology of love and loss, mistakes and missed chances, all imbued with a not-quite-nostalgia for some other sphere. In The Old Utopia Hotel, he takes an unflinching look at the ordinary lives of people caught up in the rise and fall of 20th century in America, giving poetic voice to the unpoetic, the lonely, the criminal, the hardscrabble workingman, and his perpetually disappointed woman. With precisely tuned language, subtly rebellious sentences, and a steady cadence, Rath achieves a gruff, pared-down, world-weary wisdom that takes absolutely nothing for granted and refreshes itself reading after reading.