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Ruth Thompson

Whale Fall

Let us begin here: outside the one-room whaling museum at Point

Lobos, beneath the dark arms of cypresses.

White bones of whales lie stacked, chained together so that no one can

steal them.

No charnal ground, no messy metamorphoses, no vultures. Only the

antler shapes of Cypress's transcendence, and these white bones, past


Drybones like stones. Grieve, Cypress, for the unfallen.


Whale fall is out there—somewhere beyond the harbor, in the


Cavern, vast nave, ruined abbey. Slow downdrift of ancient sunlight.

Voices of liquid angels.

Once she too sang. Once she slapped water, slipped under her own


When she was sound, she sounded. Now she is soundless as a worm-hole.

Nor can she be sounded, lying too deep for words. For had she fallen

more shallowly, she would already be eaten.


When you are eaten, that is called a sea change.

All the sweet easy swallowed up, the fat of the land of me. Last bone

standing makes the church of whale fall.

To come home, you learn echolocation, like a bat. You call your

ownself out into the dark. You ping.


In the whale graveyard chained bones are set about with try-pots.

A try-pot too contains a terrible sounding, a sea change, a fall from

whale to oil. But the hagfish, the worms and sleeper sharks are


Only a flash of blue from the bay where an otter sleeps, wrapped in

kelp. Only a ruckus of seabirds, mist rising from the cypresses.


If I dived down to whale fall, a certain poetry would be possible.

That is an extremity to which I have not gone.

I was taken. I was chained. I was eaten. But I have not tried myself


All these years I have praised the good sun and the noise of gulls,

I have wrapped myself in kelp and slept in the current.

Now in the night three strange angels kick open my door, unchain my


Go down, they say. Go down. Now you must love that too.

Reversing the Spell On Mauna Kea

Always the fish

with their tricky wishes.

Throw them back, throw them back

and the gold ring with them!

Up here on the mountain

there's nothing to wish for.

So high, so clear

the light so near.

Pale blue butterfly

on a yellow

mamani flower,

two scrawny bees plowing pollen—

no silver slipperies, nothing

you dreamed of

sliding through your fingers

like herring.

Only, in the red-gray dust

a round orange seed:

but don't plant it!

You know what that leads to—

easy climb

fool's gold

oven door

screaming harp

the necessity of an axe.


Because he was born of desire.

Because he was walled away,

that no one might see him

to remember who they are.

Because he was fed as one feeds shame—

in darkness, with the hand sinister.

Because his sister was overtaken—

all she had denied

blackening like sweat

the finestitched clothes.

Because she betrayed him.

Because Inanna was gone

and there was no friend to listen.

Because he suffered these things

I now come to him

and put my hand upon his head

and lead him out of the cave

and I say

We are animals. Here is the garden.

Ruth Thompson is the author of three poetry collections Crazing, Woman With Crows, and Here Along Cazenovia Creek. That last collection inspired choreography and a performance by the Japanese dancer Shizuno Nasu ( Ruth's current work includes a series of "Whale Fall" poems about the inhabitants of a dead whale's body as it sinks to the ocean floor, as well as a series of fairy tales. She currently lives in Hilo, Hawai'i where she is creating poetry and dance videos with dancer Jenn Eng and videographer Don Mitchell. She travels to perform and teach workshops on writing from the body, and she owns and operates Saddle Road Press.

A short documentary of Ruth Thompson's "Whale Fall" reading on February 2, 2017, part of the Poetry Flash reading series at Moe's Books, Berkeley, will be available at in July 2017.

— posted June 2017

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