by James Cummins (Burner Veer Publication, ISBN: 978-1-907088-43-8, STG£5.00).
Flash Bang is the fourth book of poetry by James Cummins following on from origins of process (Wild Honey Press, 2011), Warbler (DeFault, 2009) and speaking off centre (Dusie Kollectiv, livestock editions, 2008). This long poem fuses experimental modernism and lyric in a form both radical and engaging. With short lines and quick shifts in subject and tone, Flash Bang invokes a multitude of voices and themes to interrogate the construction of history through memory and the complicity of language in that process of construction.
The opening stanza functions as an exposition delineating the style, form and poetic intent of Flash Bang:
as if / (forward slash)
Here, “as if” functions both as linking phrase comparing and contrasting each left-aligned word and as open rejection and expression of disbelief. Reading “as if” as a “forward slash” making the terms exchangeable for each other, “simplicity” manifests itself “as if” it were “movement” and “movement” functions “as if” “neo industrial | backwash.” These lines also read as a forthright dismissal of “simplicity” and “movement,” leaving the reader with only “neo industrial | backwash” as a grim remainder. The poet plays on the ambiguity of the repeated phrase to inculcate the reader in the meaning and development of the poem. This jolting opening indicates a poet acutely conscious of the responsibility accrued in reading and writing and his anxiety to sustain the breadth and depth of this responsibility for both poet and reader.
From here the poem proceeds through twenty numbered sections dominated by images of birth, violence and the human body, particularly the head and the eye. The title word “FLASH” punctuates these sections, interrupting intermittently to suggest memory flashbacks, bursts of lightning before thunder and the flash of light at the firing of a gun, each resonating with the different aspects of the violence and history constituted. The term also recalls the repetition of “Flash” in Tom Raworth’s 1974 poem Ace, but however one interprets these interruptions, each “FLASH” augments the uncomfortable wait for the “Bang” that the title warns us will follow.
All twenty sections of the poem are distinct configurations of different voices and found text. Lines from “The Clapping Song” intertwine with Ezra Pound’s Cantos alongside graffiti from London walls and tags from Cork city, producing sections like this one from part 15:
“my mother told me
If I was goody, that she would buy me
a rubber dolly”
dragging memories into dreams
repetition as echo
And from part 17:
give me twenty minutes and i’ll give you a poem
or at least a parataxis
shoving adjective down your throat
“how much more can you take?
one in ten go mad! one in five crack up”
On the second page, the poet presents what might be a glimpse of his poetics which inaugurates Flash Bang as a challenge to the casual construction of history through language with all of its effacements and violence. A poem, the speaker says, is “delicate as ever | bracing towards | //pitch// | sounding each echo | further | beyond | the circle | preventing | enclosure”. The permeable power of poetry sets it in opposition to history which is solidified in language with stasis and constancy in which “each object” is “centered around | another object”. The poem fosters ambiguity in order to disrupt such stasis. The play on the opening phrase “as if” is relayed through the poem in lines such as “you are easily reversed | yet still | in a state of restoration”; are “you” “still” and moving in reverse at the same time, or, are “you” “easily reversed” but “still,” even so, “in a state of “restoration”? The play of signifiers is extended again on hearing the poem read through the homophones “sum,” “sight,” eye” and “sign.” Flash Bang utilises the vagaries of etymology and play on words to set the scope and range of language and meaning against the stasis and immobility of history.
This is one interpretation of Flash Bang, and several are possible. The poem is strongest in the demands it makes of the reader to attend to their own cognitive processes of reading and interpreting, a demand now familiar to avant garde poetry from Ireland, Britain and the US. Flash Bang diverges from national poetic traditions in Ireland, and this divergence is informed by the poet’s in-depth knowledge of poetry traditions in the Britain and the US. Reading Flash Bang serves as a reminder of Ireland’s vibrant, and vital, neo-avant-garde tradition.
Niamh O’Mahony is a Doctoral Candidate at the School of English, University College Cork and her research is supported by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.