Jeff Rath’s new poetry collection, The Old Utopia Hotel describes a world marked by sorrow, loss, and decay. This is a hard book. Its beauty lies in its honesty and its craft. While one might think poems about sorrow, loss, and decay are a bit heavy– and some are heavy– the craft, the delicacy, and the surprising language make this collection beautiful. These poems are true. We do hard things to one another. The randomness of our world creates brutal wrinkles in human lives. But Jeff Rath’s poems, in their brave, unblinking stare, are gathered and sewn together so beautifully, so powerfully, we are able to spend time beside the hard truths of our lives.
Besides the Amazon link above, you can also get this book through the wonderful independent bookstore, DogStar Books, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Simply put, I love this book. Its poems face the world I know. These are not the poems about daisies and sunshine. These are poems about the world we live in, the world we sometimes create.
This book, published by Iris G. Press and its masterful poet-publisher Le Hinton, holds four sections of twenty-four poems. (one is a prologue) Here are some thoughts on a few that I will keep with me.
The first section, “Bone Dust and Ashes,” opens with an epistolary poem, a letter from Tom to Maggi. Tom lives in a room behind a gas station with a small store and he is ready to close for the night. But he’s clearly got Maggi on his mind and he writes to her of the weather, the day, his life, his memories with her. He tells her that
The road crew’s due by soon
so I just brewed a fresh pot of java
an’ microwaved a couple donuts
on a paper towel to soften ’em up.
He feels a responsibility to anyone out on this brutal night. So he keeps a light on. He recalls a time he and Maggi were hitchhiking, tells her he still has “that black Camaro” but
It’s up on blocks now til I get the scratch
for new tires an’ a few small repairs.
Everything for Tom seems to be “up on blocks.” He recalls Maggi in “hot cut-off Levis,” an icon of an earlier, more hopeful time. This is the world we know. A world where most people do not wait for one another. A world where our lives move on– and often away– from others. He tells her at the end of the poem that
The service bell is always on.
He’s speaking to Maggi. He could be speaking to the whole human race.
In one of the book’s most evocative poems, at least to me, Rath takes on the voice of Joseph, husband of Mary, father (foster-father?) of Jesus of Nazareth. This Joseph is elderly, he has lost two sons. Jesus, the one we all know about, and apparently another lost to history. Joseph muses that others see him as cursed, certainly as unlucky. He notes that
Villagers huddle in the market place,
whisper among themselves,
watch me drag home my tool pouch
at the end of each day:
they don’t see God’s thumb
pressed against my
forehead, the bite marks on my heart.
Who would imagine Joseph as worn and perhaps bitter at what God has made of his life? This poem is a gem. He wonders at the end
I don’t know who can calculate
the cost of God’s love.
Then thinking of both lost sons he laments
And though the first-born
may have been the Son of God,
the second son was mine.
In the poem “Company Town,” the poet gives voice to the economic devastation many in Rath’s local Pennsylvania town might feel. He uses the first person to speak these sorrows.
Fifty years ago my family
stood here, wrinkled and edgy,
a week cramped in a battered Ford,
reeking failure, clothes stuffed in grocery bags.
Rath writes movingly of the shame and ache of poverty and homelessness. He knows he and his family are small pieces of a larger economic wound and in that wound, he doesn’t count for much, not to a big company. The poem closes with a devastating couplet
Here one must pay dearly
for even the illusion of escape.
Another poem that took me completely by surprise is “Psalm.” This poem is masterful. Here, Jeff Rath takes the structure of Psalm 23, normally “The Lord is my shepherd…” But this poem opens
This Glock is my shepherd
I shall not want for firepower.
It sleeps under my pillow
leads me down
this city’s mean streets with impunity.
The speaker is convinced of his need for this weapon, and of the security it will provide.
I am formidable in the sight of my
enemies. Glock’s firing mechanism
is lightly oiled, and its clip
The poem, “The Bus to Eternity” looks at the world in front of the Utopia Hotel and sees the sadness of a world broken and lost.
No one will see
the magic of it, though.
God’s left hand
palming the ace of hearts.
His right misdirects the eye–
rolling like a startled marble
across the universe
past a black-draped Greyhound bus.
In this poem, even God cheats. In this world, very little, perhaps nothing, is fair.
In the book’s last section, we go inside the Utopia Hotel itself. “#1-1954” relates what the speaker would do if the hotel’s bar were still open and alive. The speaker wishes he could blow up the old bar.
I’d punch every button
on this old juke box.
It would be 1954
all over again:
the old man and me–
my first time here–
a grape Nehi
and a nickel bag of Planters.
Some might say this book offers us a dystopian landscape. I don’t know. It looks like a landscape I know. The world doesn’t work for many people. You don’t have to leave the United States to find hopelessness, loss beyond what most of us could carry. In this beautiful collection, Jeff Rath invites us, with precise and rich language, to take a clear look at part of our world. It’s beautiful. It’s littered with broken glass. Maybe seeing it and naming it can also redeem it. I am not sure. I am sure, however, that I love this book.