Robert Miltner. Hotel Utopia. New Rivers Press, 2011.
Hotel Utopia, Robert Miltner’s first full-length poetry collection, is filled with what the poet, in “Box of Light,” calls “rooms of their own poetics.” These “rooms”—sixty poems divided into three sections in the book—demonstrate both Miltner’s method and preoccupation: the intersection of disparate and often opposing elements, and the fusion—or the breach, depending on “where we stand”—that such intersections can create.
Throughout the collection, the most prominent intentional intersection is apparent in Miltner’s choice of form: the prose poem, that subversive amalgam of prose and poetry first introduced in the nineteenth century in defiance of formal verse, and revived in the 1950s and 60s by Russell Edson and several of the Beat Generation poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder. Miltner has mastered the form, using both narrative and extended metaphor to create poems both subtle and evocative. He also combines the two in several poems, alternating between prose and poetic forms in different sections, or using the right margin to determine line breaks, as he does in “Rock the Boat”:
I dock and meet the woman from Islaroja. We sit at her kitchen table
drinking red wine and eating peppermint ice cream. Our tongues burn.
Desire is our boat. All night we row toward the receding shore. Our
clothes are soaked and sticking to our skin. Rain gathers in our mouths.
Dawn, and the rowboat wrecks on the coast. An ibis steps out from
behind the calla lilies. Moths open and close their wings like pliers.
We are beyond repair.
The narrative details are specific, tangible. Yet they lift into metaphor by the second line; coupling becomes a boat of desire that breaks apart at dawn on nature’s shore, where all humans exist “beyond repair.” And though Miltner dispenses with formal lineation, he retains the shell of poetic form, each “paragraph” ends up a couplet until the final paragraph—a “tercet.”
In “Blockheads, Bastards,” another poem that combines two forms—this in the subject of the poem—Miltner personifies the union of poetry and prose, enumerating the possibilities:
Did Lady Poetry want to tame Mister Prose? Or did he, if only
for an instant, change from water to wine?
Fusion, each thought.
Blur, she whispered.
Impure, he pawed.
Hyphenate, they moaned.
Baby, each said.
In this “bringing together,” something new is created, but as Miltner is quick to note in the third section of the poem, the result may be both blessing and bastard, a “Caliban,” whose tongue is “a sharply honed blade, his words bright as butane flames,” capable of cutting through or severing altogether, of lighting the way or burning everything to the ground. Thus, in Miltner’s poems, where things intersect can open the space “for impossible possibilities” (“Three Dog Night”), or they can become “a wound, a suture, a scar” (“Safety Limits”).
Along with form, Miltner’s poems are also subversive in content—political, revolutionary, though not in the self-righteous didactic mode that some political poets adopt. Rather, they are revolutionary in the
sense of historic sweep, change in the largest possible sense. In “Picture the Future,” the poem that introduces the entire collection, Miltner begins with the oppression of the ancient Central American civilizations through both economic and religious conquest. From there he moves to the revolutionary-era murals of José Clemente Orozco, who “climbs the museum walls higher, burns his human shape into the ceiling, the cupola, the sky,” his murals defying the current regime by addressing history, culture, and art. The poem ends on a Utopian note: “Sunlight. Art and architecture publicly owned. Fresh air. This hospice of humanity is the red of bloods mixed, the red of sky as it ignites another dawn”—but not before Miltner acknowledges one of the prices of revolution: “Change is constructed of muscle. Revolution is made of red meat.”
Orozco is just one of many artists who appears throughout this collection, underscoring a third intersection in Miltner’s work: that of visual art and language. Fully one-fourth of the poems in Hotel Utopia are ekphrastic. In this way, Miltner bring a host of innovative artists—Tamara de Lempicka, Honoré Daumier, Itchiku Kubota, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo—to bear on the questions of borders, boundaries, intersections, and revolution. Threaded among poems that address the very real circumstances of revolutions and uprisings—“Boots searched, everyone out of the car, lined along the lane” in “A System of Familiar Philosophy,” and “…the outcome of a civil war, as shocking as watching the neighbors being shot” in “Refugees”—are poems that speak to a different order of revolution, one that uses words, art, understanding, and human compassion to forge the world anew. As the speaker asserts in “Eugene Debs Comes to Canton, Ohio, 1918”:
The ruling class and their bourgeois lackeys believe we desire a
war—we do, but we want a class war. They think we covet their
possessions, the stuff that adds up to the material pile by which they measure their lives. What we really want is to live in peaceful shade, our daily lives easy and slow as a creek…
Looking at an empty, seaside cottage in a painting by Jamie Wyeth, the speaker finds himself drawn into just such a peaceful moment, as he “walk[s] around the wrap-around porch like it’s a book, each corner a turn of the page.” Washed clean of “city grit,” the speaker watches a sailboat in the distance “ris[ing] on the waves like a note on a page of sheet music,” and claims, “I’d trade my calling for a song if I could cover the payments to make this home my house.”
Whereas intersections—borders—can often be arbitrary, violent, “scar[s] between countries” (“Over the Border”), they can also be thresholds, horizons, a seashore where the speaker “floated into the red-orange rays of the setting sun, toward an uncertain joy” (“The Utter Beauty of Water”).
Miltner doesn’t advocate revolution as much as he sees it as a condition of the material world; what he does advocate is a revolution of a higher order, a “beautiful revolution” where pens are taken up instead of rifles, where words and tongues are the weapons of change, and where art and imagination can create an “investment you could call friend,” a country where “we’re the capital” (“Dear Beautiful Revolution”). Against oppression, shifting borders, poverty, exile, and bloodshed, Miltner pits human thought, compassion, imagination, and action. In “Burn After Reading,” he poses a series of questions designed to make the reader think about the power of language itself, then ends with an invitation: “Working with a partner, write an ending to the poem.” This implies that the intersection between writer and reader—this ongoing, complex conversation—can also achieve integration and wholeness, if only for a Utopian moment.
— Kate Fox