Category Archives: Ruth Thompson Poetry

Whale Fall


When a whale dies, it becomes whale fall. Its body, an immense ecosystem, sinks slowly to the ocean floor. But that ecosystem changes. First come ratfish, hagfish and sharks – mobile scavengers who smell flesh and swim in to feed. For years, sometimes, the vast world sinks. When it reaches bottom, new colonizers – worms, crustaceans and mollusks – “enrichment opportunists”– move in to feed on leftover blubber or burrow into the sediment beneath the remains.

Finally there are only bones, and the last stage begins. Bacteria begin breaking down lipids inside the bones, generating sulfur, which attracts more bacteria and a huge community of strange mussels, worms, snails…. The whale has left the upper world of light-sourced life and now supports a world based in sulfur.

The universe of whale fall and its infinite layers of meaning, its darkness and its memory of sound, its vast continuum from light to song to trying out, from divers to scavengers to worms to, in the end, the lipid music rising from bones – this has fascinated me ever since I first read about it.

I’ll be reading “Whale Fall” poems in Berkeley at Moe’s Books on February 2nd at 7:30 pm, along with the extraordinary fiction writer Sandra Hunter.





My Late-In-Life Love Affair With Seasons

dscn1640A few weeks ago a friend from western New York sent me a packet of autumn leaves from her woods. They were still soft, just fallen, red and orange and yellow and chartreuse, bright with banked fires.

I wept.

Until I moved east from California to live with my sweetheart in an old farmhouse in Colden, New York, I had never lived in a place with four distinct seasons.

That October I fell into the madness of love, wandering in the woods, cramming my pockets with leaves that soon faded, staring at the intense blue of the sky. I wrote a love poem, “Fat Time.” And then, as the year turned, I wrote more love poems to other seasons, to a landscape of intoxicating sensory transformation.

The poems became my first book, a cycle of praise poems called Here Along Cazenovia Creek.

I had never known what the winter solstice meant until I lived along Cazenovia Creek. I had never burrowed deep, never wakened to utter white silence. I had never felt a leap of gratitude at the first fat bud, the first bulb pushing through gray ice. I had never swum through air heavy with the respiration of swollen leaves, never watched young deer play leapfrog in the long midsummer evenings.

Now I live in a place where there are no seasons. It is a bold, handsome palette of greens and tropical reds, the same all year round. It is beautiful, and there is no bitter cold, but it does not speak of transformation.

So I miss Colden, especially in the autumn and at times like this — remembering pumpkins and scarecrows, bowls of apples and Indian corn from local farms, a crepuscular early winter dusk, perhaps the first dusting of snow.

Here is a poem for Hallowe’en in Colden, New York, with love and gratitude:

All Saints Eve

At dawn, leaf-ammil flashes
morse for sun.

Old texts of tires melt
into the highway’s margins.

The syllables of maple branches lose
their thousand tongues.

Leaves molder into veins, ghost hands
signing: fire.

The last light bears language into darkness.

And here are links to two more poems from Here Along Cazenovia Creek: “Fat Time”  and “November by Cazenovia Creek.”


Losing the Words


I was surprised by joy this morning to discover that Verse Daily had featured my poem “Losing the Words” late last year! Somehow I missed it — and today was the perfect day to discover it!

Here’s the link:

And here’s the poem:

Losing the Words

Wantons, they’d give themselves to anyone!

See how they slip in and out of one another’s clothes?

How – dressed in zinnia-colored feathers, giggling –
they settle to the lip like birds, then flicker away?

Oh, they hide behind the roof of my mouth with flashlights,
cast firefly shadows on my stuttering tongue –

dash onto the stage and off, grinning madly —
but above them that terrible sign: Exeunt Omnes.

For one day all of them –
all the thousand thousand names of God –

will fall in love. Conjoin. Merge
into the unkempt darkness behind the stars.

They will be gone forever. Then silence
will enter the echoing chambers of my mind.

It will speak its name at last.
I will say Yes.


R solstice croppedWelcome, everyone! I’ve changed the website a bit because I’ve been seeing lots of visitors, yay! and would like to make it easier to use.

Probably the best introduction to me and my work is this short video that was made on the winter solstice in 2014. So I’ll repost it here, and keep this post on the front page for a while.

“Ruth Thompson Talks About Her Work”

Also I want to make sure everyone knows that the way to “follow” my new posts and poems is to sign up where it says “subscribe to get updates.” It’s at the top right of the site on a computer, and at the very bottom — you have to scroll down — on a phone. (Let me know if it’s in some other obscure place on an iPad.)

Thank you all for hanging out long enough to read this!


Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying


In Tibetan paintings, the realm of the hungry ghosts coexists with this one. They fly around and around us, wailing their lack, screaming to be filled. They are pictured with long constricted necks and vast, flapping, empty bellies. There is no way to unknot the neck and receive nourishment, no matter how much – or who – they eat.

Nor can they love another, their hearts being locked around their own need.

Often, in the folk stories, people are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed and selfishness. It’s a punishment. But in more sophisticated philosophies of rebirth, the dead are drawn to a way of being that matches their existing energy, that feels familiar to them. This is also another way of understanding karma.

Hungry ghosts flew into my poems because they look like the Birdwoman, a figure who haunted my dreams. For me they have less connection with Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism than with my own syncretic mythology. They are the excluded fairy at Talia’s feast; they are the harpies at the throat; they are the mother whose emptiness is a hole in the world.

Hungry ghosts believe that others have what they do not, and that what they need must come from outside themselves. Their lives are always conditional on others, and thus they can never be happy. Nor do the astonishing joys of the earth speak to them.

Hungry ghosts are my black beasts. From my poor starving mother to the cult leader who ate my life – they keep coming back. I was destroyed, and I escaped and made myself anew, but they smell me out, they circle – I want, I want – and it takes so much energy to fight them, over and over to say No.

I would free them if I could. If unconditionality were a magic potion, if it could fall from the skies like sweet rain.

But I know it doesn’t work like that.

May all beings be happy. I say. May all beings be free.

But we choose who we are. Every day, we choose.

We grow roots deep within ourselves, and day by day, joy by joy, gratitude by gratitude, we grow ourselves human.

Or we don’t.

Here is a poem for the hungry ghosts, from Woman With Crows, where they had their own story to tell.

Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying

Because they cannot rest

cannot dance strong fishbodies
through long brown kelp

or seep like sun through the tufted fingers of redwoods

cannot breathe through their feet
or sprawl in hot sweet grass sated as seeds

cannot flicker out and in through their fingertips
making cloud-to-cloud lightning along the edges of the world.

And in this place where throats are bells
clamoring the great sounding universe back to itself

they fly with throats clutched close
they drag empty dirigible bellies
their ears are filled with their own keening.