Praise for Zero is the Whole I Fall into at Night

Sometimes you forget what a poem should do, & it takes a gift to remind you. Thompson possesses such a gift. She tells us, there is safety in the body. She says, there are homes that are made of glass. Between those two spaces are the music that drives a world, the sadness & the tenderness. And then she writes us into Attica, into Beirut, into Tunisia. She writes us into the ache of motherhood, of regret and loss. Thompson captures so much of it, & lets it spill forth with a dignity that dares you to look in the direction it points, and remember “that the gods get lonely.”
—R. Dwayne Betts

Intimate. Lyrical. Sensual sounds animate this first collection of poetry by Becky Thompson. Her poems are a landscape of intellect and beauty. Welcome my dear sister, to this thing called poetry!
—Sonia Sanchez

I give this book of poems—three bows. Thompson writes about a life filled with hurt. She is a witness for the prosecution. She is a woman flying away. She is the last witness and the first lover. Sex is what she kisses before she falls asleep. She is a survivor like many readers and writers. When she adopts a child, home becomes a place of color. Thompson comes from a long line of cowbirds. After the pecking comes the poems. For this we are grateful.
—E. Ethelbert Miller

Copies of the book are available for order at http://www.mainstreetrag.com/BThompson.html

Cover art by Elizabeth Nardone. Photography by Edgar Peraza.

Featured Poet Fall 2011 Issue of Slush Pile.

For Harvey Milk

When you reached your arms out
to Dan White did you know he had
a gun? Did his locked jaw warn

you? Is this why you had a camera
shop, to photograph the
present? Did you know we lit

a galaxy of candles on Castro Street
and that the boy in Iowa saw you
on TV? When James Byrd was dragged

through the streets, did you feel his spirit?

Published in Fast Capitalism, Ben Agger, ed. 2008.

From a long line of cow birds

after Reginald Dwayne Betts

I come from the narrow hips of women

who tucked ambition inside their Sunday hats,

who ate their skin instead of their children

praying with their eyes flattened to the west;

from the iron-hided men who counted their wives

throwing calf gonads to the dogs, clutching their flasks.

I come from “if you tell your mommy I’ll use my knife”

the winter air hugging last season’s fainted blooms.

The tilt of my father’s gaze enough to send women swooning,

the soft of my mother’s breast enough to buy her top shelf rum,

who jumped from her Tallahatchie bridge before I arrived,

taping a pink ribbon to my head to signal lineage.

I come from the big print at the bottom of coloring books

holding onto words as if they were my life,

wrapping my legs around my sister at night,

Kentucky Fried Chicken tee shirts hugging our bellies.

I come from knowing that easy is another word for nothing,

jeweled circles inside of honest is a synonym for love.

Cow birds the commoners that follow the Mormon missionary line,

their pecking of the dead reminds us we’re still here.

Published in Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, 2009

To Du Bois

after Randall Horton

DuBois (due-boyz) v. [French Huguenot]. 1) to write scholarly blues from a place that is deeper than black, as in, to dubois with fire where there once was only reason, Sam Hose’s lynched knuckles hanging in an Atlanta butcher shop. 2) to Pan Africa a movement knowing that forty acres and a mule will never satisfy, as in I dubois my way to Ghana in my ninety-third year; see also Alice Walker’s womanism: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.” 3) to grieve the loss of one’s only son: his little soul/ leapt like a star/ that travels/ in the night/ and left a world/ of darkness/ in its train. 4) to wear three piece suits in Atlanta’s summer as in, I will dubois you with the finest of leather, the sweet smell of Tunisian cologne. syn West, Cornel. 4a) to smoke one cigarette after every meal, for 72 years; refining discipline that also woos the women, see also: Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Published in Harvard Review, Spring, 2008

To Mandela

after A. Van Jordan

Mandela (man-del-a). v. [Xhosa org. South Africa.] 1) the action of getting bigger with every year in prison as in, you send us to Robben Island and we will mandela a university behind these walls and yes I can sneak a 800 page memoir out of prison, one toilet paper sheet at a time. 2) to sing the national anthem (Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika) in three languages, as in to mandela a people’s language is to know their culture. 3) to defeat one’s opponent without dishonoring them, as in he mandelas de Klerk all the way to the Nobel Prize.  4) to adorn oneself in father love, as in my son died of AIDS, no shame in the telling. 5) to dance to Hugh Masekela’s solitary trumpet. See also: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Winnifred Mandela.  Ant: George Bush, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

Published in Harvard Review, 2008

Parting questions

What is it like, salat in the city?

Five times a day, the muezzin’s voice

fog horn the color of sand

calls the men to prayer

knees leading toward Mecca

the city breathes mosques

What is it like to stand during prayer?

My mind bows with the men

stays with the women

American in Tunisia

I want to cover my head

bend away from the West

What was it like when you died?

My mother calls me home

come lamb, he is going

her flute singing psalms

you open your eyes

we are with you, there are circles

surrounding your bed

rocking we are rocking

your eyes as big as the sea

you ride smoke rings to the sky

Arab father now sand

Is there a prayer

that is upright and kneeling?

Is there a home

that is not made of glass?

Published in We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, Kamal Boullata and Kathy Engel, eds. Olive Branch Press, Spring, 2007.

Beirut 2006

My Israeli friend Nachum who is blind

and an expert stone mason tells me

he carries a pistol when he goes back to Nahariya

I’ll shoot them all before they kill me

I look at him speechless

cite the lopsided  numbers

his face goes blank

he feels my silence

reminds me

I am here, not there

trying to make peace with the stone

Published in We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, Kamal Boullata and Kathy Engel, eds. Olive Branch Press, Spring, 2007.

Post-Attica visit

I dreamed there was a jungle gym

in your cell, we

trapezed from side to side

limber and flying

the guards heard laughter

and came running

we made ourselves tiny birds

on the metal tree top

our wings small enough to squeeze

through the bars

into the meadow the sky so blue

you lost your breath

we flew until just before count

squeezed back in

I see blue birds now and yearn, I

sleep  sitting up

Published in: Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas. Vol. 12, no. 1, 2005.

History in the Water

The policeman takes dog
from young boy’s hands
“Snowball” he cries
eyelashes rain

a man holds his wife and son
son and wife
water storms the steeples
she says: let me go
he does: grief streaming

woman with skin dressed in wrinkles
rocks on a superdome cot
people flood the stadium
three now beside her waiting
no blood between them

soldier calls home to Biloxi
CNN his only connection
water drowns phone lines
dust hijacks his memories of safety
he grounds the butt of his gun in the sand

Bush views bottom of a slave ship
from his bubble in the sky
terrorists take notes
Black people still traveling
middle passage on buses

Rosa Parks stands up
her spoken word to the wind
blow to the middle of the sea
save these brave people from your moods

The next world war will be about water

Published in: Amandla. Fall, 2005. Also included on the CD, My Soul is Anchored and in the poetry anthology, Mourning Katrina: A Poetic Response to Tragedy, National Writing Project. Furious Flower Poetry Center.Fall, 2006.


in Auschwitz you lived
in a tin can on a metal beam
seeped into water
children drank to soothe throats
rough from crying

in Rwanda you slipped
under the bed with the boy
left speechless
his parents found him fetal
pulled him close, army circling

in Colorado
you buckled yourself to the breast
of a teacher
who covered the children’s bodies
with his own, tent of mercy

in California you
carried the voices of women
finding Marilyn Buck locked*
in the hole sixty days darkness
post towers roundup

Elie Wiesel asked
did god die in Auschwitz
god colors the water
whispers in desert breezes
does yoga in still darkness

Marilyn Buck is a political prisoner in Dublin, California resulting from her antiracist, anti-imperialist work in the 1960s-1970s.

Published in Illuminations: An International Magazine of Contemporary Writing. Special Haitian Issue, August, 2006.

Flying lessons

Each August I dream in staccato rhythm:
soggy chalk, keys that fit no locks
lesson plans written in gibberish, children
who bury their five year old faces,
classrooms with no chairs, books with no words,
August jitters, September’s follies. Children see red

yellow, blue,  silver letters on the wall. Read
together, alphabet parade, their bodies in rhythm.
My work—to let children learn words
with Catch a Falling Star. No locks
on imagination. A book a face
they can study. They’re children

with scripts braided into their clothing. Children
with smiles for graham crackers and lizards, red
hearts from families with southwestern faces
Zuni, Navajo, Irish, mestizo, with rhythms
the children carry in lunchboxes. My job, no locks
on cuddles and candy, stories and play-dough, words

kids can play with–tiger and tremendous. Words
that can shelter–peaceful and remember. Children
whose parents come talk after hours, their bodies locked
in chairs made for toddlers. Their own voices red
with worry about lessons that discipline rhythm,
grind sand into pleasure. Their faces

reveal the years of their schooling facing
teachers who smothered their histories. Words
made foreign by a grammar of sameness, rhythms
fastened down by drink and no money. Each child,
a question for me to still ponder. Henry with eyes red
from his grandmother dying. Crystal who locks

her eyes to the side, loves words that unlock
the magic of rhyme. Oddy, the boy with a face
lined with kindness, whose family arrives with red
Koolaid and nopalitos for sharing. I seek out the words
of Neruda and Freire. Children
ask me for answers. I offer them questions. The rhythms

of a nation reduced by amnesia call for words,
for rhythms the tender imagine. I ask children to unlock
letters for loving and fairness. Red storms and blue skies on their faces.

Published in The Teacher’s Voice, 2007.