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UP Professor Jorge Guitart Reads From His New Book at Hallwalls

Second Language

It is not so surprising for a writer to pitch his or her tent on adopted soil. Think of Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland; Vladimir Nabokov, born Владимир Владимирович Набоков in St. Petersburg, Russia. Chinese-born Ha Jin is now a major American novelist. The second language, or third, or fourth needn’t be a prison house where we languish broken and tongue-tied; sometimes it is a playground or a research laboratory or a field of dreams or a sovereign nation of its own, as it is for Cuban-born Jorge Guitart, author of a new book, The Empress of Frozen Custard and Ninety-Nine Other Poems (BlazeVOX [books]). Jorge has been familiar to Buffalo audiences for years, through his occasional readings and his earlier books and chapbooks, like Foreigner’s Notebook (Shuffaloff, 1993) and Film Blanc (Meow Press, 1996). With its hundred poems, however, The Empress of Frozen Custard is his magnum opus, and what a book of wonders it is.

For Jorge, the English language is a kind of game, a Rubik’s Cube of permutations that he enjoys turning in his hands, discovering new patterns. “Oh balloons,” he writes in his poem “Apostrophes,” “you may lead empty lives without us or you may not.” To the heavens he prays, “Oh, heavens above, we pray you are structurally sound.” In “Remainders” (i.e. books on remainder) he lists:

I Retook the Cake

Operation Taco

The Quilombo Club

Theresa Blows a Fuse

When Molly Withdrew

Beluga Made Simple

When not writing poetry, Jorge Guitart is a professor in UB’s Romance Languages Department, specializing in linguistics. The Empress of Frozen Custard is a linguist’s field of dreams, a Yankee Stadium of words in which he plays all nine positions plus designated hitter. And though he has translated some of his poetry into Spanish, he does not write primarily in his native language. “There are too many traps for me in Spanish; I fall into mental clichés,” he says. “I’m more inventive in English where I’m not bound by the easy phrases that echo in my ears.” His literary influences include such American modernists as Wallace Stevens, John Ashberry, Charles Bernstein, and poets of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry school. Words (P=A=L=A=B=R=A=S?) come first in his writing; he is always looking to break through the sound barriers of convention. A poem may be titled “A Tiny Part of the Hole” or “Epistle to the Sinovials.” Reading Jorge’s poetry is like watching exotic particles come flying out of the Large Hadron Collider. He writes loony hymns, nutty psalms, toccatas in the key of H, and effable poems about the ineffable: “If I may say so your ineffable needs washing.” In “Books I Never Bought” he introduces us to:

Lorna of the Corner Grocery

A Lease on Heaven

The Robot Who Said No to RNA

A Slave to Gruel

Two-Fisted Virgins

Light Helmet of Faith

On Top of a Hill of Beans

The Leninist Bunny

It should be apparent that Jorge Guitart’s poetry is witty and then some; it can be riotously funny. In “Hopelessness and Salvation” he announces:

See these cashews?

They are religious nuts.

They believe they’ve been placed

In this bowl for a purpose.

They are right.

Won’t you have some?

Such writing, all 104 pages of it, could pass for play, and Jorge Guitart is the most playful of poets. But the poems in The Empress of Frozen Custard are also models of what happens when you cast off ready-to-hear spoken English and re-imagine the language so that your readers can hear it afresh, as you once did as a boy in Havana listening to big band jazz and baseball games on American radio. English then was a miracle. Thus Jorge writes in “Ballpark Figures,” “Holy polluted mackerels! the sun is kindling its own temporal fire,” which is surely the voice of the late Yankee announcer Mel Allen calling the play-by-play of the Big Bang.

But that is Jorge Guitart, and on Wednesday December 9, at his reading at Hallwalls, you are promised an evening of such surprises.

Earth’s Daughters presents Jorge Guitart and Teresa Peipins on Wednesday, Cecember 9 at 7:30pm, at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center (341 Delaware Avenue). Tickets are $5.

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