This poem admits it, right off the bat: it's a riddle. Then it presents us with several different metaphors to help us find the solution. We hear about an elephant, a house, a couple of different kinds of fruit, bread rising, newness, fatness, and a cow in calf. By this point in the poem, we figure out that the riddle is about a pregnant woman, thanks to all the images of round things. But these ways of describing a pregnant woman aren't necessarily the images of expecting that we've come to expect—they're less than glowing and even a little bitter.
Then, in the last two lines, we start to get even more of a feeling that the speaker is uneasy about this whole pregnancy thing. She describes eating a bag of apples—which we can imagine filling her stomach in the shape of this pregnancy—as if she's done something wrong. She seems to feel stuck in this wild and disproportionate situation and body, and there's no getting off this train.
I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
- That you are, dear poem. That you are. This line sets up the entire rest of the poem, but could be interpreted a few different ways.
- The nine syllables part, though, is easy to explain. If you count the number of syllables in each of the lines, you'll see that there are nine. Plus the poem itself is nine lines long. That's just shy of what you might be expecting in a neat little poem like this, as iambic pentameter consists of 10 syllables per line.
- So, even from the number of syllables in each line of this poem, we can sense that something's off here. Or maybe nothing's wrong, and the format of the poem could be giving us our first clues to solving the mystery—nine syllables per line, nine lines, and pregnancy lasts nine months.
- As far as who the "I" is that's claiming to be this riddle, we've got a few options. First, the "I" could simply be this poem. We've all read a poem that felt distinctly like a riddle, so that's totally a possibility.
- On the other hand, the "I" could be a character, or a person. We'll hear a lot of metaphors for pregnancy throughout the poem, so it's likely that the "I" is actually the pregnant mother. The syllables could even be a symbol for the nine months of pregnancy.
- We're guessing that the real answer might be a combo of these two options (wouldn't that be the best of both worlds?), but we won't know for sure until we read to the end of the poem and find out more about this riddle.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
- A-ha! A clue. Take a minute, as you read, to visualize an elephant. We think of a big, gray, heavy thing having a hard time getting around. Elephants are ponderous, like the house that's described later in the line. Ponderous is just a fancy way of saying heavy and huge—it's fitting that a big, complicated word is used to describe the feeling of heaviness. The word itself has got some heft.
- It's kind of weird, though, to think of a house as ponderous. Houses are normally big and heavy—we'd like to see a person try to pick one up—so a ponderous house must be a particularly large and clunky looking house. It's paired with the image of an elephant, so think of this house as the gigantic and ugly elephant of all houses.
- Then, once you've got the image of this huge animal and clunky house, think about what this line could be a metaphor of. Some of the later lines make us pretty sure that the riddle is about a pregnant woman, but at this point, it's still pretty open to our imaginations.
- So imagine, if you will, a pregnant woman as an elephant and as a house. The speaker of this poem seems to think pregnancy is awkward, huge, and, well, ponderous.
- In other words, it's not sounding all that awesome so far.
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
- Here, the imagery starts to tip us off in a more direct way that this riddle is leading to pregnancy.
- Think about a giant melon, walking around on top of two tendrils, a word which, by the way, has a couple meanings. Tendrils are like the leafless vines of plants, reaching up around a fence post or tree, but the word can also be used to describe anything that's delicate and curly, such as tendrils of hair.
- Now that you have a clearer picture of what tendrils are like, imagine a big old watermelon strolling, or walking leisurely on top of them. This is a pretty dicey image; we can imagine the melon tumbling off the tendrils at any bump in the road.
- And when you add to that the fact that this image is also an example of personification—the melon is given the human ability of strolling—it gets downright funny and playful.
- Take the next step and imagine a pregnant woman as this precarious melon: a giant belly on top of normal legs, trying to walk around but slowed down by the child in her womb. It's a playful image, sure, but it also shows just how precarious a position this woman is in.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
- Now that we've thought about melons, we move to a different kind of fruit, which we know only as red fruit. When we think about red fruit, we think of something ripe and round like a tomato, an apple, or, perhaps, like a pregnant woman's belly.
- We imagine that this fruit is just begging to be picked off the tree. In fact, it's something we'd like to take off the tree, and which we'd probably enjoy eating.
- This is a little creepy when we realize that this red fruit, too, is a metaphor for pregnancy. After all, when someone bears children, people say that they're "fruitful."
- We move from this red fruit to other desirable and valuable items—ivory and timbers. Remember that elephant from line 2? Well we're betting it had some ivory that a fair few poachers were seriously coveting.
- And the fine timbers could be timbers that you'd get from logging and use for a particularly nice hardwood floor, or fancy furniture. Someone's timber, though, could also mean their character. If someone is of a fine timber, then they're a good person.
- The weird thing about this line is that, other than the whole being fruitful thing, it doesn't seem to connect to pregnancy that much. But then we think a little harder, and we realize that perhaps this part of the riddle is telling us that pregnant women could be just like red fruit, ivory, and timbers—desirable and expensive.
- They're also things that are harvested for someone else's gain. The speaker seems to think pregnant women are objects of greed, and in a way, consumer commodities. This line could be saying that a pregnant woman is desirable to have not as a human being, but as a thing—a sort of baby-making machine.
- Also note the emphasis of this line, which is started with an attention catching "O" and ended with an exclamation point. Somehow, though, we get the feeling that this excitement may be sarcastic. Or maybe it's a woeful O.
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
- This line moves us back into some of the more obvious metaphors for pregnancy. It's easy to picture a pregnant woman as a loaf of bread rising, what with the slow swelling of her belly as a child grows inside.
- And even though we love freshly baked bread just as much as the next person, there's something not very appetizing about thinking about a baby along the same lines as bread fresh out of the oven.
- In fact, it sounds a little sad and cynical the way that the speaker thinks of pregnant women. No pregnant woman that we know wants to think of herself as a loaf of bread. Or a melon on skinny legs, either, for that matter.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
- We're back to money again (like the expensive ivory and fine timbers from line 4). The idea that the money is "new-minted" is referring to freshly printed money. We can think of this literally— as printed dollars or coins that are brand new, straight from the US mint. We can also think of it metaphorically, in which case the pregnant woman's baby would be the new money. Yeah—that's not a flattering comparison.
- The "fat purse" is another thing that can be taken on a few levels. First, there's the idea that someone who has a "fat purse" is really rich. Their purse is fat because of all the money they've presumably stuffed into it.
- An alternate idea is that the woman is simply the metaphorical purse for the metaphorical money. The line says literally that we're talking about money in a purse, but we're supposed to solve the riddle and figure out that it's referring to a baby in a woman's body. This interpretation is aided by the use of the word "purse" as an innuendo for the female sexual organ, especially for prostitutes. Again with the flattering comparisons. Eesh.
- Also, check out the sounds in this line. There's some awesome alliteration, or repetition of consonant sounds, in the phrase "money's new-minted."
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
- For the first time since the first line, we see the word "I" again. This time, the meaning of the riddle is starting to become obvious.
- By saying "I'm a means," the speaker is telling us that she feels as if she's being used, just a means to an end. She's just a stage in someone else's master plan—the bearer of their fruit.
- Saying that she's a "cow in calf" is probably the most obvious part of the riddle, making us certain that the riddle is giving us metaphors about a pregnant woman.
- But the purpose of this line is not just to solidify our guesses about the meaning of the poem. A cow that's pregnant—or, as farmers would say, in calf—is an unflattering way to think about a pregnant woman. Mean people sometimes use the word "cow" to describe women they don't like, or women they think are fat and unattractive.
- There's also, to follow the theme from earlier in the poem, an economic side to the idea of a pregnant woman being a cow in calf. Cows are milked, or killed for slaughter, and sometimes calves are killed to make veal. When we picture it that way, thinking about cows and their babies on the same level as a pregnant woman is straight up messed up. Slaughter and birth are polar opposites, and yet, somehow, our speaker finds a way to connect these two events with a little trick called figurative language.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
- Again, we see the "I" in this line. Eating a whole bag of green apples in a short sitting, we could imagine, would make the speaker's stomach quite round, so this is another metaphor for the large belly of pregnancy.
- There's also a weird sense of guilt here. This admission to eating the bag of green apples could mean that she felt that she's overindulged, and that is the cause that she's become this huge, ponderous pregnant woman.
- We can also imagine that these green apples would be quite sour. Eating a bag of green apples would be a lot more difficult on the taste buds than eating a bag of red apples.
- This image also makes us think of some other famous females, like Snow White and Eve, who both took bites out of apples and, well, we know how it turned out for those two.
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
- This line, which is enjambed with the previous line, seems to imply that boarding the train is either along the same thought-line, or as a result of eating the bag of green apples.
- This line shows us that our speaker knows that, so to speak, once she's gotten pregnant, she's boarded a train that she can't get off of—her life is forever changed and there's no going back.
- For other women, who perhaps choose another path (abortion), or have it thrust upon them (miscarriage), there's a chance things may change, but this woman knows that she is stuck with this baby, this life as a mother, for good.
- This train stretches for at least nine months, and, if the baby is not given up for adoption, for the rest of the mother's life.