Friday, June 24, 2011

Poetry Friday: All Things Shift in the Body of Nature and the Mind of Man

I've just finished writing up notes for my lecture at this summer's residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The lecture is all about riddles, metaphorical thinking, ambiguity, living with uncertainty, the Japanese concept of "satori," zen koans - well, it goes on and on, and my next job is to cut it down to a reasonable size.  But to finish up my series of posts about riddles here at the Drift Record, I'll share one last bunch of my favorites. These are not the "punning riddles" of most joke books, though there's a lot of fun to be found in those. Puns remind us us of the flexibility and strangeness of language. But there are other riddles - "literary riddles" they are sometimes called -- found in all cultures, across geographical boundaries and language groups and centuries and levels of sophistication, and those are the riddles that make me feel the momentary "hesitation" than I like so much - the riddles which illuminate this line from Craig Williamson's wonderful book, A Feast of Creatures:

All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, 
the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. 
When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.

With those words in mind, here are six final riddles. Answers are at the end of this post.

A blue calabash
with toasted kernels of corn.

Aztec riddle, first recorded 
by Bernardino de Sahagun in the 16th century, anthologized in 
Touching the Distance: Native American Riddle Poems by Brian Swann

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters, 
Toothless bites, 
Mouthless mutters. 

 (from J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit)

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

(traditional riddle from The Real Mother Goose)  

Sliver of moon, 
slice of star.
Rhinestone in
 a jelly jar. 

(from Rebecca Kai Dotlich's Lemonade Sun and Other Summer Poems)

She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond. 

(from a poem by Emily Dickinson - not written as a riddle; still, a riddle.) 

Who am I 
that when I fall
I make no noise? 

(traditional riddle from the Democratic Republic of the Congo)


Today's Poetry Friday Round-up is over at Carol's Corner. Head there to see what other people have posted.

Answers to the riddles: stars in the night sky, the wind, an egg, a firefly, a sunset, the night.


  1. These are all delicious. Thanks for sharing, and I wish I could attend your lecture!

  2. Hello Julie:

    Thanks a bunch for these! Riddle poems are among my favourite types of poems.

    I look forward to seeing you again at the VCFA Special Event Day next month.

    Carol-Ann Hoyte

  3. Wonderful riddle poems--thank you!

  4. Fun! I got more of them this week than before. I'm learning to let my brain look at them slantwise.

    I have "rhinestones in a jelly jar" at A Year of Reading for PF this week!!! :-)

  5. I think these would be a fabulous children's book. Is that happening?

  6. I have a riddle collection in the works!

  7. somewhere i could have sworn i had a collection of riddle poems from, like, the 19th century.

    *frantically ignores writing to rummage through the basement boxes...*

  8. Hi, Julie--(late to the party as usual)

    Enjoyed these (got them all except the egg, which is the one I should have heard before, right?) and also the chance to think about what we're doing with our metaphorical minds when we compose, consider, and solve riddles,the flow and shift of meaning. Thanks!