William & Mary

Background Radiation: Talking poetry with Hart

Henry Hart. By David Williard.

Henry Hart. By David Williard.

Multimedia content
Henry Hart discusses the state and the soul of poetry;
Audio: Henry Hart reads selections from Background Radiation, including,
The Cannibal, Jamestown 1610 / (hear backstory); Into the Tunnel / (hear backstory); Through a Donkey's Eye / (hear backstory).

Background Radiation
, Henry Hart’s recent collection of poetry, is not for the intellectually squeamish. As astronomers might gaze into distant heavens for residual elements of nature’s Big Bang, Hart looks deep into human history in a self-described attempt to “pick up on events left over from the past.” It is a past, Hart explained, that is “full of blood and nightmarish situations.”

The titles inside the book indicate the tenor: “Bed of Nails,” “Inquisition,” “Rural Apocalypse,” “Burning the Men” and “Emperor with a Chainsaw.” In each case, Hart, the Mildred and J.B. Hickman Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary, enters the minds of his subjects, extracting ideals, realities and rationalizations that make the past accessible.

Cover of Henry Hart's Background Radiation.From an historical account of “The Starving Time” at Jamestown, Hart gives us “The Cannibal, (Jamestown, 1610)” which opens, “Only the moon saw him lick blood / from snow beneath the palisade, hold / crystals to his lips like a priest / steadying a chalice of wine.” In following stanzas, there is the opening of the belly “the way his father had cut through diseased chickens,” the dropping of a fetus “through a hole chopped in the James River’s ice” and the boiling of human flesh for the meal “he knew might be his last.” Finally, Hart closes, “He asked the fire’s ash: How else / could I build God’s paradise in this frozen swamp? How else / could our divided bodies be one?”

Hart deals with personal issues in his book. One section is devoted to poems that grew from his attempt to trace the history of his own ancestors through China’s Boxer Rebellion. Other poems start with places that at first seem familiar in Tidewater, Va.—the “Naval Weapons Station” and the Hampton Roads tunnel.

“Into the Tunnel” actually was seeded during a conversation between Hart and a friend who was afraid to drive across the bridges connecting Charleston, S.C., Hart said. Mixed in are the author’s thoughts concerning his acclaimed biography of James Dickey, such as when the poem’s radio talk-show host asks, “Since you spoke to the great man on his death-bed, what did he say about his plan to become a god?” Finally, the poem’s last stanza becomes the tunnel’s entrance: “The sky cracked, lighting guns on the toxic fleet. / Cars shushed like rapids down a flume. Trucks rocked / my doors, spraying grit at the windshield’s fog. / I edged into line, let red lights pull me through / the amber shadow quaking with a tape deck’s bass.”

In its own way, Background Radiation represents a cosmic search through what Hart called the “fear, blood, the non-romantic things that history has tried to hide.” Survival may seem improbable, hanging in a balance as tenuous as a “bass” that threatens to crack a tunnel wall. However, mankind does survive, and for it, Hart casts a unique glow on some of its elemental traces.