Baltimore poet, Mary Azrael, has written some beautiful riddle poems. I was introduced to these lovely and insightful poems many years ago when I taught at Carver Center for Arts and Technology north of Baltimore. And, of course, I read them tomy students to teach vivid language use in my classroom.
Riddle poems are found in the oldest of our literary record. Anglo Saxon riddle poems are famous and intriguing. And puzzles are good for the mind!
Below are a blend of these poems for your enjoyment. See if you can guess the subject and if you can, write it your answer in comments. If you’re really brave, try a riddle poem of your own.
1. An Anglo Saxon Riddle poem translated by Craig Williamson
A life-thief stole my world-strength,
Ripped off flesh and left me skin,
Dipped me in water and drew me out,
The hard blade, clean steel, cut,
Scraped-fingers folded, shaped me.
Now the bird's once wind-stiff joy
Darts often to the horn's dark rim,
Sucks wood-stain, steps back again
With a quick scratch of power, tracks
Black on my body, points trails.
Scholars think that these riddles were sung in the mead hall where the community gathered for food, shelter, safety and entertainment. They are often suggestive of sex and violence and may make the reader (especially if she’s a teacher standing before open-minded students) a little nervous but just as often sing the worthiness and beauty of every day items.
creating a stone path is a riddle of fitting piece of unyielding stone to the earth and the space.
Who can eat the fire
and roll over still
pale as a pebble and cold?
Who can swallow
in silence the sun
and give back whole
in total silence the sun?
Who is the thief
who wants nothing for keeps
but this instant of power?
xi by Mary Azrael from “Riddles for a Naked Sailor” published 1991 by Stonevale Press Burkittsville, Maryland
I like the way that this riddle gives the object a surprising personality and of course I like the image of “swallowing the sun.” Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
A sliver of yellow
swells to a hollow bud
blue where it lcings to the wood.
it will split and swallow
itself in its dwindling heart.
Never a flower
on its own shriveling stem,
it must touch another
Then see what poppies
of burning color
will shake themselves loose
with a glare and a hiss.
xii by Mary Azrael from “Riddles for a Naked Sailor” published 1991 by Stonevale Press Burkittsville, Maryland
This riddle is one of my favorites. I like the idea of the poet observing the world around her and then trying to make these every day things arise in people’s minds without naming them. What do you see in these poems? What do you like?