Five Songs on a Cruel Instrument. A. E. PiousThis is a colour photo of a thin booklet standing up. You can see the jacket is a yellowy brown, and there are end papers with some kind of illustration. No print is visible.

Broken Sleep Books, 2022      £6.99

Spooky play

Five Songs on a Cruel Instrument is a micro-pamphlet and a curiosity. The editor, Tristram Fane Saunders, tells us that Pious was an academic at York University who had a gift for lyrical versions of poems from old languages, for example Old Norse or Scots Gaelic. The versions here sparkle with surprising rhymes and comic touches that should delight any curious reader.

One of the highlights for me is ‘That Dark Harp’. It’s an intriguing piece in which Satan sings strange lyrics allegedly rendered from an original Anglo-Saxon ballad (unnamed). Similes (like ‘as a plan has a flaw’) are piled up to create a weird list of spooky images. This is extremely effective in such a brief space.

The second poem — just as entertaining as the first — has the musical title ‘Llewelyn’ and apparently comes from a Welsh elegy. It begins: ‘When Llewelyn bled, the cherry grew red, / the elder tree berry grew sweet’. It has a weird mythical lilt and ends similarly to ‘The Dark Harp’. Instead of Satan singing, however, this time ‘hell cheers’.

There are also two rude and rebellious pieces, including ‘Finding Kilnicky’, an Irish drinking jig. The late A. E. Pious obviously delighted in idiosyncratic and playful language:

If thick is thin
If kissing is sin,
If this stick insists it’s sticky,
Try living in Kilnicky!
Mick, try living in Kilnicky!

It’s obvious in this poem that the author is ‘twisting ill wits sickly’ and having enormous fun while doing so. Although A. E. Pious has sadly passed away, I hope to read more of his fragments and versions in the future. His work shows lyrical wizardry. Highly recommended.

Nell Prince