The Lammas Hireling by Ian Duhig

Warlocks, warriors and video shops
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The Independent Culture

There's a feeling that any kind of "difficult" writing is bound to be solemn. The case can certainly be argued about Pound or Eliot; but humour is central to the achievement of a Joyce or Beckett. Among recent writers indebted to the modernist masters in that respect are Paul Muldoon, WN Herbert and Ian Duhig: erudite and venturesome poets who specialise in a complexity which has one puzzling and laughing together.

The Celtic input into this tradition of humorous difficulty is intriguing. Muldoon is an Ulsterman, Herbert a Scot, Duhig the London-born child of Irish Catholic parents. Duhig is the most economical. The Lammas Hireling, shortlisted for this year's TS Eliot Prize, is his fourth book in 12 years and, at 69 pages, his longest by a short head. In his last volume, Nominies, he seemed to opt for a more direct and accessible style. This book requires greater concentration.

Many poems here owe their existence to commissions from magazines, arts bodies and festivals; two went up on lavatory walls in Salisbury. Some show duties admirably, and soberly, fulfilled. Others suggest a wicked relish for the task: "The Lark in the Clear Air" is a beautifully absurd account of a girl celebrating her birthday by jumping into "cooling cow-shit", and "Vilbja" is about a curse which turns a woman's lover into water:

"suddenly, mid-lie, he stalled above me...

Thinning like air great heat was making shiver...

Theo pissed himself from ice to raging river".

On a Northern Arts literary fellowship, Duhig went north from Leeds to Durham and Newcastle. He rendered his own versions of its history, folklore and modern realities in poems about Columba of Iona, a warlock, and a video shop. One brief was to produce "something commending the landscape and literature of the region", to be inscribed on vellum. "Brother Robert's Double Vision" is one of the more dutiful pieces. But the vellum is brought enthrallingly into the poem's final image of "gospel-pages nailed out, becoming 'drumheads' at the Dissolution of the Monasteries".

Interlaced with these poems are obscurely sinister items such as "Lotus Root Porridge" and "Mi Ley". There are some violent ballads, and three poems in which Duhig is at his satirical best.

"Blood" surveys the shallowness of teenage street wisdom on dress; "Taking my Measure" features an intellectual tailor; and "A Dream of Wearing String Vests Forever" inveigles Christopher Smart, William Blake and EMForster into the first of six terse stanzas in praise of the garment.

The Lammas Hireling is worth its price for this approachable trio alone. But patient digging will unearth further treasures.