Matthew Kirshman’s Two Cent Comedy offers a heady mix of the visceral and the cerebral, not in opposition or even juxtaposition, but in thrilling and sometimes frightening mutual implication. The first-person speakers of these short, imagistic prose-poems think with and through the senses; embody metaphors; and revel in or marvel at the fungibility of body/soul, animate/inanimate, word/idea/object, the one becoming the other as easily and uncannily as (to cite one of the volume’s most striking images) an angel’s back becomes his front without turning around.
The first part, from which the volume as a whole takes its name, narrates the experience of a recently dead soul, free of its corporeal body yet still very much in the realm of the senses, as it makes its way towards Paradise. The poems are deeply allusive—one tastes, as if remembering a long-ago banquet, Dante (from whom the section derives its sense of “comedy”), Milton, the Hebrew Bible, and Shakespeare’s Tempest, as well as the pop-culture world of video games and children’s cartoons. Yet they are at the same time vividly sensory, immersing the reader in a world of light and dark, cold and wet, hunger and thirst, and music both familiar and strange. Though brief, “Two Cent Comedy” is both funny and moving—sometimes at once—and ultimately satisfying as a series of steps into the unknown as well as a completed journey.
Part two, “Coastlines,” is a collection of short poems, mostly prose poems with some free verse intermingled, thematically and linguistically connected to each other and to the volume’s first half. Particularly prominent, and affecting, are motifs of the permeable boundaries between life and death, self and other; the mutual implication of body and thought; and, most of all, the simultaneous urgency and difficulty of interpretation. In keeping with “Two Cent Comedy”’s reimagining of western culture’s great stories, “Coastlines” makes complex use of myth, both explicitly (poems on Persephone and the Minotaur) and implicitly: in one particularly affecting poem a goddess arises from the dirt and transforms into a city. And in a beautiful series of free verses near the end of the volume Kirshman recasts Genesis through/as a sexual encounter that is epistemologically dense but sensually crystalline. This meaning-fraught sensuality is anticipated by poems throughout the volume that use the body, and particularly the sexually responsive body, as a ground for the not always conclusive interpretation of the meaning of familial, social, and cosmological relationships.
As powerful as this technique is, perhaps the most effective poems in the collection are those about their own interpretation, or the mysteries of language as the foundation of self and society. Speakers strive to read and write themselves and their surroundings—or to be written and read. One poem asks “What is the law of talking?” and concludes “That’s why they call the mouth a ‘trap’”; another imagines learning to communicate with alien others not through ears alone but through “organs…muscle and bone.” In one of Kirshman’s most powerful poems, a printing press learns to set its own lines of type; the speaker concludes that it must be functioning as a medium, receiving messages from elsewhere—“How else can a machine speak?” How else, one wonders at the end of this provocative, haunting volume, can anyone speak?
Stephen Cohen, Professor at Central, CT State University