Riddle me this

Riddle me this, AF with Hanna Tuulikki, 2012

I was recently invited to be part of a secret project in Preston, giving away free postcards within the city. The theme of secrecy brought riddles to mind, and the tradition of riddling within folk culture – famous examples are ‘Captain Wedderburn's Courtship’, and it’s kin, ‘Riddles Wisely Expounded’, as in Jean Redpath’s version.

The text for the postcard is part found, part newly composed. The answers to the riddles can be found below, and on the project blog.

bower-boudoir, AF, 2013

Another reason that my thoughts turned towards riddling and cryptic forms of knowledge was a new project curated by Ordinary Culture – you can see more on the project here – that I have been working on, for a small wood in Nottinghamshire, a few miles north-west of Newark. 

‘all elegy / is stilled motion’
photograph & poem, AF, 2012

Within the wood are concealed a number of nodding donkey pumps, as this was the site of the first oilfield in the British Isles, a reminder that every technology is capable of becoming pastoral, over time. 

The name ‘Duke’s’ brings to mind all the men of high status who are fooled by poor-folk, typically women seeking to preserve their right to love and fuck whomsoever they choose. 

Riddles are cunning, true to the cryptic nature of Nature, which loves to hide, which thrives embedded. In this spirit, the project for Duke’s Wood is resolving itself into another secret form, or form of secret, the bower. I hope to construct one of these shelters within the wood, of which more anon.

word-bower, drawing, AF, 2013

Returning to the subject of riddles, during the road north Ken and I composed a series of poems in homage to Paul Celan’s ‘Questions and Answers’, which were written in Rumanian, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, under the influence of Surrealism.

   What is the poet's loneliness ? 
   A circus act not included in the program

The form attempts definition, but, as with a riddle, it depends upon an image, sometimes fey or askance. A riddle is a twist, which reveals itself to be natural. 

photograph Hanna Tuulikki, 2013

These examples were written in collaboration with Heather Yeung & Davy Polmadie. The river being a ‘flower’ is a pun familiar to every cryptic crosswordsmith – one that Sandy Balfour taught me many years ago.

Questions & Answers, after Paul Celan

   what is a garden?

   a garden is culture
   and labour

   which produces an annual 
   surplus of colour

   what is a hut?

   a hut is four thin walls
   nailed around a stove

   what is a river?

   a river is a flower
   with its roots in the hills

   what is a loch?

   a loch is an acre
   of crofted water

   a swan's looking-glass
   the moorhen's delight

   what is the sea?
   if the sea knew
   what it was

   it wouldn’t keep
   coming back

   what is an air-bed?

   an air-bed is something
   that lets you down

   all night long

   what is the moon?

   the moon is a coin
   which slots into the hill

   what is illness?

   illness is strangeness
   felt inside us

   what is water?

   water is what
   the earth wears

   what is tea?

   tea is something
   old and brown
   to fish in

AF, with contributions from Davy Polmadie
& Heather Yeung

Riddle me this, Solutions

Riddle me this, AF with Hanna Tuulikki, 2012

Bannockburn Rotunda

Bannockburn Rotunda, National Trust for Scotland

The National Trust and Scottish Poetry Library invited ten Scottish poets to compose an inscription for the 1960’s built Rotunda at Bannockburn. Kathleen Jamie’s poem was chosen, and it was to my mind by far the best of a mixed bunch. 

   Here lies our land: every airt
   Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
   Belonging to none but itself.

   We are mere transients, who sing
   Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
   Northern lights and siller tides,

   Small folk playing our part.
   ‘Come all ye’, the country says
   You win me, who take me most to heart.

Bannockburn Rotunda, National Trust for Scotland

I found the project raised the issue of inscription itself, as, whatever the merits of each piece, I think I was the only contributor to attempt to compose one. It’s a devilish task, to negotiate the weight of history, nationhood, and the regalia of power. Like Jamie, I found myself embedding found phrases and imagery; we both refer to Hamish Henderson – someone whose relationship to culture and nationalism I could trust.

Freedom Become People, Alec Finlay, 2012
(a note on the text is included below)

If it seemed necessary to me, given the brief, to compose a text within the tradition of inscription, I also found that I had to embed a question, directed toward the figure, or caricature, of Robert Bruce.

Jamie slips out of the grasp of possessive memory in her appeal to the pennants of the sky, sea and brae, which bear no worldly allegiances. I required myself to interrogate the site and the act of commemoration, attempting a poem that was a paean to liberty, while also speaking, in a different way to Kathleen, against the potentially stultifying effects of memory and politically over-determined affiliations.

Kathleen published some reflections here

The rotunda project was also a reminder of the great contribution the Scottish Poetry Library has made to civic life.

Freedom Become People: a note on the inscription

This poem inscription is derived from the text of the Declaration of Arbroath, with its vision of the wandering tribe of Scots who came ‘from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules’ to settle here. After years of conflict, poverty, and struggle, this free people declared their loyalty to a king, Robert Bruce, as long as he did not subvert their rights or betray their freedom.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Robert Burns in his paean to independent thought, ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, and are restated in our time by Hamish Henderson, who adopted the German poet Heinrich Heine’s motto ‘freedom becomes people’, a phrase suggestive of the endless process by which liberty is renewed.

As with political systems, historical memory can inspire a people toward liberty, or cause them to embrace tyranny or xenophobia. The authors of the founding statement of Scottish independence spoke for ‘the whole community’, warning against the dangers of being subject to autocratic rule. Guided by their precepts we may allow the past to enlighten us, while at the same time remaining alert to the false consolations of the mythic hero.


Hookin Farm, courtesy Orkney Museum & Library Service

the shaft
at Hookin

by wind
for wheat
& corn

to chaff

Hookin Farm, Alistair Peebles, 2011

Papay is the local name for Papa Westray, one of the smaller Orkney islands. I took the hopper plane for a visit in 2011, along with my Orcadian pal Alistair Peebles; we went to look for some of the farms pictured in photographs that he had tracked down in the library archive, showing the old style of 'windygear' windmills that were essential before the grid reached the islands. The ones we could find, with help from locals, we compared to the plethora of new small-scale devices, such as the 'peedie dragonfly' pictured below.

There are also the remains of a 19th century turret post windmill, on Holland Farm – and in one of the farm buildings, the remains of a horse-powered threshing mill.

Alistair Peebles, 2011

   the island grid
   is regulation
   Orcadian green

   fields connected
   by dykes within
   an irregular coastline

Holland Farm, Alistair Peebles, 2011

Beneath the waves a cable connects the island to another island, the same cable that continues on to another island, that one called the Mainland. 

Neil Rendall explained how the New Year storm sheared the cable, but the Power boys came over and fixed it – they stayed at the Youth Hostel – and it lasted fine, for two months, but now it’s broken again, so the island is on the generator which makes the electricity's a bit flaky.

'peedie dragonfly', Alistair Peebles, 2011

   in that golden age
   a peedie dragonfly
   seemed to hover
   over every field