Friday poem: it started with a conversation...

'The Lammas Hireling' has been a lucky poem for me. It started from a conversation I had with a farmer late one night when out for a walk in Islandmagee –I never even learned his name to thank him.

Ian Duhig reveals the story behind his own poem, 'The Lammas Hireling'.

'The Lammas Hireling' has been a lucky poem for me. It started from a conversation I had with a farmer late one night when out for a walk in Islandmagee – I never even learned his name to thank him. He pointed out another farmer's house and confided that the family came from a long line of witches. The farmer told me when one of this family was dying, he began changing back into a hare, much to their embarrassment. They rushed the funeral arrangements, which my informant nevertheless attended, and told me that, as they lowered the coffin into the grave, he could hear the hare's paws beating on the coffin lid.

His story stayed with me and, perhaps unsurprisingly, suggested the idea of a poem employing an unreliable narrator, whose mind had been turned by his experience. Into this surfaced bits of hare-lore. In the centre comes a reference to the old witch rhyme found in many places in these islands.

I conceived of the witch positively, as a kind of pan-sexual nature spirit. The farmer who hires him commits a sin not unlike that of the wedding guest in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. In the same way, although he starts as a lover of silence, an enemy of words and therefore poetry, like the wedding guest he ends up compulsively confessing, his unshriven logorrhoea the pretext for how we know his story. The poem hints at his sexual attraction for the hireling and perhaps guilt for his wife's death. Christianity gives him no rest and all he gains from my words are a brief respite from his torment as he uncomprehendingly describes his experience before he has to confess it all over again.

The poem travelled much further than I ever imagined: Teju Cole used it in a piece in Nigeria concerning local shape-shifters, A.E. Stallings was nice about it in the USA and the poem was made into a short film by Paul Casey that ended up on the syllabus for a course at the Sorbonne. In its own way it does indicate that something very local and specific is also universal if we can find the words to do it justice.

The Lammas Hireling

After the fair, I'd still a light heart
and a heavy purse, he struck so cheap.
And cattle doted on him: in his time
mine only dropped heifers, fat as cream.
Yields doubled. I grew fond of company
that knew when to shut up. Then one night,

disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife,
I hunted down her torn voice to his pale form.
Stock-still in the light from the dark lantern,
stark naked but for the fox-trap biting his ankle,
I knew him a warlock, a cow with leather horns.
To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow,

the wisdom runs, muckle care. I levelled
and blew the small hour through his heart.
The moon came out. By its yellow witness
I saw him fur over like a stone mossing.
His lovely head thinned. His top lip gathered.
His eyes rose like bread. I carried him

in a sack that grew lighter at every step
and dropped him from a bridge. There was no
splash. Now my herd's elf-shot. I don't dream
but spend my nights casting ball from half-crowns
and my days here. Bless me, Father, I have sinned.
It has been an hour since my last confession.

The Lammas Hireling

by Ian Duhig

Book cover for The Lammas Hireling

Ian Duhig has long inspired a fervent and devoted following. With The Lammas Hireling - the title poem having already won both the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Poem - Duhig has produced his most accessible and exciting volume to date, and looks set to reach a whole new audience. A poet of lightning wit and great erudition, Duhig is also a master balladeer and storyteller who shows that poetry is still the most powerful way in which our social history - our lives, loves and work - can be celebrated and commemorated.