Grey Natural Light by Katherine Horrex
It breaks through voile and stains
like tannin leaching into a cup;
(the voile bunched like tissue-paper
strewn by an elephant).
Carbon filters into rooms
invisibly, on the back of the world’s breath.
Dioxide. It is not unexpected.
Nor is it hindered; almost every car
trails ashes down the road’s long
crawl of grau, grau, grau. Not much
today it seems will grow but we may dig
for graphite, paint elephants in the sky azure.
Katherine Horrex’s impressive first collection Growlery was published last year by Carcanet. In her previous introduction to her poems in Carcanet’s New Poetries 7 anthology, Horrex noted the “need to address unusual and unlikeable things in society…” One of those is environmental damage. Horrex’s northern English background (Hull, Manchester) infuses her writing with images of industrial presence and decline, and an awareness of the social and political implications of both.
Grey Natural Light weaves a nuanced spectrum of language and ideas. Unlike her other poems that establish a vivid location, named or not, this poem’s setting is tenuous. There are strong, concrete nouns in abundance, however, and the resultant cluster of not fully related images produces an almost surreal effect. This works in the poem’s interest. Climate change and pollution may first appear as hauntings; trickles and twists of “grey” that belie the cataclysm that has already occurred.
Notice, in the poem’s first line, the ambiguity of “stains”: it is meant primarily as a verb, but it keeps its ghostly identity as a noun (the light “breaks through voile and stains”). Juxtaposition gives rise to another kind of contrast: the delicacy of “voile”, a silky material used for clothes and soft furnishings, has a particular class association, different from that of a much-used, tannin-stained teacup.
Something has happened to the voile, and the ensuing simile is disconcerting. The strewn “tissue paper” it now resembles might be discarded toilet tissue. The elephant seems dislocated, deranged, in a habitat soiled by human invasion. At the same time, there’s a hint of the faintly comical. The great grey creature’s protest is feeble. And the narrative does not answer the question of what has “really” happened; I like the sense of off-stage dramat.
The language of environmental damage is already so familiar that we are numbed, but Horrex makes us pay attention in stanzas three and four by separating “carbon” from “dioxide”. Standing alone, the latter seems charged with toxicity.
Horrex steers away overstatement. A dry narrative voice proposes, of the carbon emission, “It is not unexpected. Nor is it hindered.” This lays the problem bare. Expectation implies knowledge, but that is thwarted by something more powerful: greed, laziness, hopeless optimism? Wisely, Horrex leaves the reader to interrogate our failure to intervene.
From a window veiled in ripped shreds of voile, we look down on a road clogged with the death-traffic of slowly moving cars, “almost every car” leaving a trail of ashes. The cars make a repetitive noise that evokes a stop-start engine sound, “grau, grau, grau”; it’s also the German word for “grey” and might recall “that great grey blind lake” in Rilke’s poem, Orpheus. Euridice. Hermes. Horrex is partly led by sound to the verb “grow” and, more distantly, to “graphite”. Mining graphite, an extremely versatile form of carbon, may damage the environment; at the same time, graphite is needed for the technological advances we hope will “save” it, like batteries for electric cars. A nice, “chance” (as it may or may not be intended) side effect of “grau” is the alliteration with the collection’s title, Growlery: a word that originates from Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, and signifies a private space in which to growl in peace.
The last line’s imaginative flight adds further ambiguity. The “elephants in the sky” may resemble the earlier elephant, which is now also the elephant in the room. Painting elephants the colour of the sky, azure, is far from artistic redemption: it’s denial. The threat is simply painted out.
Horrex gathers and shapes her material with a light touch. From the title to the last line, her poem suggests how our concept of the “natural” has itself been eroded. She doesn’t flinch from condemnation. But the poem seems to contain a great deal of sheer pleasure in textures, places, colours, lines.