The Light Collector
by Jean Sprackland (from ‘Hard Water‘)

He knows broad daylight inside out,
can’t get excited any more by the tawdry brilliance of it,
flattening everything, dumbing it down.
From an open window on the seventh floor
he watches the street scudding below, and thinks
I must make something of my life, as if it were
a bag of rags for recycling.

Gauzy scraps of dawn
have begun to bore him. He leans out
into the caramel light of late summer evening
smattering wet roofs and TV aerials: too rich, too obvious.

At night he daydreams tricks so bright
he feels they lend him context.
He knows he has a steady way with starlight,
can pick it up like sand on a fingertip.
He goes out under the moon, in the fabulous air
tasting of electricity. He lingers by houses with drawn curtains,
presses himself thin as a shadow and watches light
bleeding from the open doorway of a pub.
But it leaves him hungry. What he seeks
for his own broken purpose is smaller
more secretive sources: the bits you find
in the sweepings of a long day alone.
The cryptic blue cast by a computer. The smash-and-grab
of camera flash. The blade of light under the door
with voices glinting behind it.

He wants to stop all the draughts in this place
with light, he wants it to shed meaning.
In the dark kitchen he opens the fridge
and the light is so sweet and precise it leaves him aching.

When I first picked up Hard Water (the collection from which this poem comes) I thought that it was going to be a book of nature poems. I have no idea what gave me this impression – maybe because the cover is green?? This not being my favourite subject, I was sort of unexcited about the whole endeavour (once, upon reading a poem about swifts in my poetry workshop group, I commented obtusely that this was all very well but I wanted more depiction of the human experience. My tutor, rightly, said that we probably didn’t need this, because actually this was a poem about birds) but felt obligated to ‘tackle’ the author, who is major in contemporary poetry.

It turns out that although Hard Water does have quite a few poems set in the natural world, it also is a book of everyday life, identity, domesticity and childhood. I absolutely loved it, and I lovingly copied ‘The Light Collector’ into the front of my new notebook. There is so much to enjoy here. I love the ‘fabulous air / tasting of electricity’– I think it’s the unexpectedness of the subjective descriptor ‘fabulous’ somehow working with the noun ‘air’. Then the synaesthesia of ‘the voices glinting’ behind the door and the possibility of ‘stopping the draughts in this place / with light’. The sheer freshness of the language – the ‘gauzy scraps of dawn’ – is still as new today as when the poem was published in 2000.

It’s also funny in its way. The central figure in the poem is like a hipster of light, dismissive of the ‘tawdry brilliance’ of broad daylight and other clichéd forms of light – the ‘too rich, too obvious’ golden sunset.  And who hasn’t looked out the window and wistfully thought ‘I must make something of my life’?

Who is this figure and what is ‘his own broken purpose’? The poem can be read as an extended metaphor for the creative process itself – the collecting of light from ‘secretive sources’ representing the gathering of material for a poem or novel. The light collector searches for the right kind of light as the writer searches for the best phrases, images and anecdotes. But searching too hard can be in vain – it’s only when he appears to give up on the search, walking through the dark kitchen ‘after a long day alone’ that the starkly perfect surprise of the refrigerator light is bestowed upon him, ‘so sweet and precise it leaves him aching’ . It reminds me of those Magic Eye 3D images – you have to let your focus loosen a bit to see the pattern, just as a poet needs to let their mind soften in order to land upon the best material.

This is all lightly handled, however, with the sharpness of the poem’s images and its gentle melancholy meaning it never becomes too obviously allegorical. Jean Sprackland is an expert ‘light collector’ herself, to the extent that this poem left me aching a bit too.

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