Review: Hotel Utopia, by Robert Miltner

I started the trip early in the morning. I was on my way to Chicago to see an old friend of mine. I hadn’t seen her since she left last August. I’m accustomed to travel and the solitude, but not quite the emptiness of time that rests between activities. So, when the Megabus lurched forward, I made a note of the time between rest stops, between coffees or smokes, between bathroom breaks, and meals. A writer friend of mine had given me his copy of Hotel Utopia, by Robert Miltner, saying it was “important.” I began reading it while the bus pulled out of the parking allotment.

A bleak Midwestern landscape rolled past my window, probably. I had to imagine it. I imagine I traveled past countless farms with their twisted, forgotten machinery freezing in the fields. I imagine I traveled past gutted steel mill towns that dot the heartland of America like stars in a rusted-out constellation. When the bus stopped in Toledo for the first time, I jumped out for a cigarette. I had finished the little book, and even though I saw nothing pass the static winter of my window, I felt burdened by my ignorance.

Miltner’s book was difficult, not because I didn’t understand, but because it made me feel uncomfortable. The casualness of my life became a stone in my throat, the flippancy of my hands trembled in the cool air. The book does not bring a new vision to common things. It does not release a barbaric yawlp over the rooftops. It does not construct a new world. No, Hotel Utopia simply offers a place for the meek to inherit. It offers a place to come as lost children, as homeless, as “sisters and brothers, equal and free, breaking bread instead of heads together.” Miltner’s book offers the blood suffering in the streets of Mexico, Ireland, Russia, our own backyards in urgency against blindness or, worse, indifference. Hotel Utopia is a place of opportunity, a place to understand that struggle is not solitude, a place that addresses tyranny, personal and impersonal, and a place of responsibility. Hotel Utopia is a new place to live.

The driver blew his whistle, and I flicked my cigarette into a snow bank. In his poem “The John Reed Book Club,” Miltner not only presents a witness of revolution but insists that we, regardless of our station, have potential. He says:

They can’t do this revolution without us, gringo, Reed says.

I say, but what about the hungry hundreds of thousands waiting
for the direction a certain hand will point them?

Paper, he says. Write about it.

Hotel Utopia frightens me. I cannot escape its weight. I wrote in my own journal, “If my writing cannot feed the hungry, what good is it? What’s next for me?” I felt as if the bus had slipped into low gear and I was made to bear witness to the scenery that wailed in the distance like an open-mouthed ghost. I wondered if I was asleep and what it meant if I wasn’t. In the poem “Burn After Reading” the poet charges the audience for answers:

Is the poet being literal or figurative when he talks about “rights”?

Is the poet over-generalizing when he says “all television is
propaganda?

Can one “harbor a terrorist” without a boat?

Does “conspiracy” mean more than “breathing together”?

What is a “free speech zone”? Is there one in your town?

What are the “problems” listed here?

What is revealed by the poet’s library records?

How long can the author be held without trial?

Write the name of a person you suspect of being jealous of
your freedoms.

Finally, Chicago loomed before me. Its tall buildings like the bottom of a jaw, teeth biting upward. Vanessa met me at the bus stop. I could not speak for a good six blocks or so, not until we made it to the EL. We took the purple line up to Evanston, where we got out and walked another block to her place. As she slept in the cool white glow of the apartment, I wondered as Miltner did in “City, State, Zip”:

Who’s moving under the pile of blankets and newspapers in a doorway down the alley there, as the city, an unwrapped gift, wakens to another day of white skies and blue winds?

And I wondered where they might live.

***

Matthew C. Mackey studies poetry in the University of New Orleans low residency MFA program. He has traveled and studied writing in Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Currently, he is working on a collaboration of academic and social interest for the Aldington Society and the International Imagism conference to be held in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France. He is the founding editor of Buried Letter Press, which publishes creative criticism, artistic explication, and other fine shenanigans. He resides in Akron, Ohio and works as an adjunct instructor of developmental writing.

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