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Handbook for the Diamond Country

Collected shorter poems
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 1990.

Author’s preface

     These poems were written around the world, from Scotland out.
     The earliest are from The Cold Wind of Dawn (London, 1966) and The Most Difficult Area (London, 1968). Thereafter, they come from the French bilingual volume Terre de Diamant (Paris, 1983). And there are quite a few hitherto uncollected.
     In his free meditation on a phrase from Heraclitus, Heidegger says this : “It is long, the road that is most necessary for our thought. It leads to that simplicity which is what must be thought of under the name of logos. There are still very few signs around to show us this road.”
     What I’m presenting here are maybe a few signs arising from one body-mind’s attempt to follow that road.

A High Blue Day on Scalpay

This is the summit of contemplation, and
          no art can touch it
blue, so blue, the far-out archipelago
          and the sea shimmering, shimmering
no art can touch it, the mind can only
          try to become attuned to it
to become quiet, and space itself out, to
          become open and still, unworlded
knowing itself in the diamond country, in
          the ultimate unlettered light.


It was the cold talk of the gulls he liked
and rain whispering at the western window
long days, long nights
moving in
to what was always nameless
(though the walls were hung with maps
and below him
lay a library of science)

at the end of that dark winter
he saw blue smoke, green waters
as he’d never seen them before
they were enough
a black row busy on a branch
made him laugh aloud
the shape of the slightest leaf
entertained his mind
his intellect
danced among satisfactory words.

Report to Erigena

"Labour" suddenly seems exactly right
hard slogging, no facility
like learning the basis of a grammar
working your way into unknown logic

it’s earth in labour makes for diamond

here on this nameless shore, knowing the work
who are the workers ? who the travellers ?
reality works – wonders ? travel-travail

the old signs come out of the morning
the skull fills and empties with the tide
energy gathered, the first act

ragged coast, rugged, rough winds
the language bears us, bares us

rock province, roots – and lights.

A Snowy Morning in Montreal

Some poems have no title
This title has no poem

it’s all out there.

“Open form” does not mean you cannot be spare and concise, any more than W. C .Williams “no ideas but in things” means no ideas at all ; two of the numerous experimental propositions proved in the course of White’s Handbook for the Diamond Country. He composes music as sharp, sweet, subtle and immaculate as Heaney’s, or anyone’s : “…the lip-lip-lipping/of grey water on white sand” ; “Field after field/my eyes can’t see/enough of this whiteness”. He has composed an original fleet-footed body of work so transcendently far from the corrosive careerism of London-Oxbridge and transatlantic literary hierarchies as to make them seem marginal as well as grubby.
     Michael Horovitz, The Financial Times

The “diamond country” is not so much another country as another state or space of mind. And as one reads through the Handbook one notices that the direction is always towards the “white”, towards the removal of the stain of the self, until the thing spoken of seems to speak of itself without any intermediary. One is in the territory of the haiku, of which it has been written “A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature ; it is a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean…” The haiku attempts to abolish the boundary between geographical space and mental space and thus enlarges the territory of being.
Many of the poems in the Handbook are haiku, or sequences of haiku, although Kenneth White ignores the stricter demands of the form, wisely considering that the strict counting of syllables is, in English, an eccentricity. In compensation he makes subtle use of assonance and alliteration and places the line endings with an eye to both the sensual and the sensible.
     Douglas Sealy, Irish Times.

In Britain, poetry is still seen as one of the decorative arts, a verbal equivalent of ornaments on the mantelpiece. […] More radical commentators see poetry in much the same fashion. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways ; the point is to change it”, said Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach, and the left wing has tended to take the same attitude to poetry. […] White challenges this view. The very title of his Collected Shorter poems – Handbook for the Diamond Country – has a practical ring, as if it were a kind of prospector’s guidebook to regions of the mind. […] Each poem of the book contains moments of perception that leads to a new way of responding to what’s around us, a new feeling of identification and respect. The cumulative result of that is a new attitude and a different set of priorities.
     Hugh Macpherson, Scottish Book Collector