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How Long Can A Bird Sing?

Douglas Valentine and Jeremiah Day


No Words For You, Springfield, a 2008 work by Jeremiah Day, takes as it's point of departure the emigration of the Blasket Island storytellers of Ireland to Springfield, Massachusetts. The storytellers of "Great Blasket" lived for centuries on a small island off the coast of Ireland and became famous for their oral-narrative tradition, but the island was evacuated in 1954, and is now deserted and their way of life is gone. Many of the islanders emigrated to Springfield, an industrial center outside of Boston in the US, where their storytelling tradition did not continue. Springfield itself is a major victim of deindustrialization and has been in decline for decades. Douglas Valentine is an author currently writing from Longmeadow, a suburb of Springfield. He is a regular contributor to Counterpunch magazine and the author of several books on political history, including the definitive study on the C.I.A.s Phoenix Program in Vietnam, and The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of the War Against Drugs. In the late stages of completing No Words For You, Springfield Day discovered that Valentine was writing from the area and approached him to engage in a dialogue around the project.

Jeremiah Day: I used to teach elementary school in Los Angeles, and one day I realized how many of my students were from Central America El Salvador and Guatemala in particular. A large portion of these childrens parents had fled to the United States to avoid the chaos and violence of those countries civil wars, but ironically had fled to the country largely responsible for those wars, as the United States had basically initiated and managed them. It was one of those rare moments when I could feel how I lived in a landscape that was alive with the consequences of what are usually abstract political ideas, and where the underlying causes of my daily condition were clear. In light of your work on broader historical and political questions, do you ever see your local situation in this way? How does Springfield seem to you, when viewed through the prism of the repressed chapters of American history you have pursued? Douglas Valentine: Most of the people I meet around here are from here, while I was born in Pleasantville, New York, and lived in a lot of other places before I got here 15 years ago. It's not my hometown and I do not have a lot in common with the hometowners. They have extended families here and friends from school. Their brothers are cops. The cops are basically the first line of defence against the Puerto Ricans and Blacks. The Italians (80 families came from one village in Italy) in the Little Italy part of Springfield resent the encroachment into their decaying neighbourhood. There was a Mafia murder here about four years ago right across from the Italian deli I go to every Saturday. The local TV station interviewed me about the murder because they knew about my book Strength of the Wolf. I said that Al Bruno, the Mafia boss that got killed, was probably an FBI informant. The next day, some people at the gym I go to wouldn't talk to me. Comments were made. Al Bruno's son goes to my club. The daughters of Mafia bosses marry cops in town. About ten years ago a guy at the club was, by coincidence, the son of a narcotics police captain in Springfield. We became pals and would shoot pool and drink beer at bars together. One day he told me a secret his father had told him, that the cops in Springfield allowed the Mafia bosses to bring drugs into town and, in exchange, the Mafia bosses told the cops the names of the Puerto Rican and Black

distributors they sold the dope to. That way the cops could keep making busts and keep the pressure on the minority community. Eight ball in the side pocket. There's a big law firm in town: Ferriter & Scobbo. The Irish I know in town know nothing about Blasket Island. I have Irish citizenship because my wife's father came from Ireland. My own Scottish ancestors came from Donegal, near Blasket Island. Strange. Springfield seems to me like normal hometown America. The people here like it. It's their home. There's a big air force base, Westover, on the north side of town. Smith and Wesson has a factory here. The people understand why we're in Iraq and Afghanistan and they support the troops. They support Israel and think Palestinians and Arabs are subhuman. If we talk politics, it gets heated. Living here in Longmeadow, next to Springfield, I feel like a Martian. I write about the CIA and the DEA. When my work comes up, mouths drop open. There are a few radicals who would like to know what's in my head, but even they eventually realize my experience is a wild story of cast away sailors in distant strange lands they have no way of confirming or denying. I exist here in a state of suspended anticipation of the next epiphany. JD: What we know of the poetic tradition of the Blasket Islands comes to us largely through the efforts of the English linguist George Thompson. In the story telling of the Blaskets, Thompson felt hed found a link with the pre-Socratic tradition of Greek epic poetry, where spiritual, personal, political and practical subjects were integrated, and thus the boundary between art and life could be said not to exist at all. The Blaskets had poetry in the sense understood by Martin Heidegger - "Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer." And this everyday speech, infused with song and meaning the anti-thesis of the dis-enchantment of the modern world explains the appeal and resonance of the books which are artifacts of this tradition. By the time it was decided to evacuate the Blasketers in the 1950s, one islander said there were more Blasketers in Springfield than on the island. The cause for immigrating to Springfield among other places has been theorized by one transplant as like when one bird settles on wire, and then another and then the whole flock comes over to join. - Even in this description is contained the echo of the poetic imaginary of the Blaskets, and in my mind their enchantment seems to pervade my thoughts of Springfield. But I wonder do you find any such magic there? Can you feel any embers of that poetic tradition that was transplanted and then lost? DV: There may still be embers of that tradition in Springfield. The Portuguese immigrants have it in Ludlow. At their annual fair, a group of about 50--60 men break away and go across a field under a big oak tree and, in the middle of the circular mob, two or three or four men sing to--at each other; the singers change places but the song is constant, a kind of rap music in which the guys poke fun at each other in verse, truly amazing, impromptu jazz. I'm not involved with any Irish groups in Springfield so I don't know about them. Personally, I find the magic everywhere because I am that tradition. People here are attracted to me, despite my being an outsider, because I speak poetically and have strange stories to tell about a

world outside theirs. I spoke recently at a Unitarian church about my books. The people were enthralled. People ask me questions all the time; they come to me like they go to a movie theatre. Other times I project total disdain for this parochial place and people find me odd and off-putting. I don't care. As part of the poetic tradition, it doesn't matter to me where I am - be it Springfield, Saigon, Paris or Caracas. The dolmens, cairns and runes of my forefathers are embedded in my brain cells. I would be outside anywhere but in the forest. A piper in a Highland glen. JD: Springfield and the Blaskets have some things in common it could be said both have been left behind by progress. The demise of the Blasket tradition was due to the islanders desire for access to modern life. Perhaps entering the modern world of factory jobs and political bosses need not have ended their poetic tradition, but in this case it seems it did. And the Islands themselves are now only home to ruins of a lost way of living. Similarly Springfield is often said to have been left behind. Once a major center during the height of the industrial revolution, Springfield seems to have led American cities into post-industrial decline, even sooner then rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit. Springfield has been increasingly poor and shunned by its neighbours since the Second World War, when many of the larger skilled manufacturers moved away. From your vantage point in Springfield, how do you see the progress of the rest of the United States? Particularly in rock music there is a sense of the old industrial cities as a kind of golden age of high wages and full employment, which are compared to the precariousness of contemporary service jobs. Does some of your vantage as writer and essentially a critic of contemporary American life stem from your local context? DV: "Pity that poor monster manunkind, not. Progress is a comfortable disease." - E.E. Cumings There used to be great rock bands here, playing the clubs downtown, then the club owners realized it was cheaper to spin disks and the bands vanished. That was ten years ago. The musicians got service jobs or moved to Northampton or Boston. America to me is a tractor trailer truck, a convoy of tractor trailer trucks, hurtling along the interstates, in the rain and snow, the heat of summer, at night, always delivering the consumer goods and you'd better get out of the way. Springfield is another stop along the materialistic road to heaven. Remember, the Simpsons live in Springfield. It's the same here without the conscious parody. To me, it's pantomime. Springfield, as a metaphor of America, keeps me honest and hopeful, depressed and out of control. I'm an orphan of America like the old beat poets. JD: Do you see your own role as a kind of storyteller? Your work could be said to seek to reveal hidden truths, to explain the causes for our condition. Given that there is no longer

such an oral tradition available to you (I imagine), do you see that your work might still have a call, in Heideggers words? DV: Yes that's how I see myself, and maybe yes to the second part, as there is an oral tradition in America, but I don't know Heideggers meaning of call. I hear the call every minute. And for someone like me, the call doesn't come from an audience. It's just something I have to do, like a cat chases birds. Like the old blues song goes: "How long can a bird sing? As long as he knows his song. And that's just how long a fool can go wrong."

No Words For You, Springfield, Installation view, Project Arts Centre Dublin, 2008

Blasket Island, courtesy Con Brogan, Dept.of Environment, Heritage & Local Government, Ireland

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