33 posts from Characters, Haunts, Geography

Author's Note to 2005 Blog Edition:

This book takes its title from a remark my friend Jeff Monseau made about the punitively lengthy letters I used to airdrop on him; "…characters come out, your haunts and geography."

He and I began writing each other in fall of 1987. If I remember right, it all came about as the result of one depraved night in Boulder when I mistakenly purchased the Collected Letters of Lew Welch—drunkenly mistaking them for a book of poems. Thousand of miles and some stories later, holed up and too broke to hit the road, I was starving for words. I picked up the book of letters, expecting little. Instead, I found the raw transcripts of Welch and his peers learning their chops and eventually even making a durable mark on literature.

I scrawled off an impassioned note to Jeff, saying "quick! Now! We gotta get this all down before we know anything, so there'll be a record of our innocence some day, and a map for others to follow on the road to knowing..." At last count, the total correspondence weighed in at roughly 1,800 pages, typed and single spaced, and I'm sure there's more than enough evidence to damn us both on multiple charges of knowing either too much, too little or too late. But I guess that's all grist for the biographers, now...

Because we never had any stamps and I moved around a lot, the letters got longer and longer until we jokingly referred to them as "novels." A number of these poems had their beginning in those letters, some in a very different form and some almost exactly as they appear here.

Another factor shaping these poems was Stone Circle, a forum for the oral tradition run by poet Terry Wooten. Learning to speak poetry from memory had an enormous effect on my use of language, teaching me how to make music of words and how to hear the music in everyday speech.

There is a place in Michigan
where words still live,
spoken live over a fire
in the center of three great rounds of boulders,
arranged to mark the stars.
Rolling out in echoes,
sometimes magic happens there.

How the Deer Were Lost


In the white months they wandered
seeking what scant foliage
lay scattered under snow or
tearing their soft lips against the low tree trunks
to get at the bitter layer beneath the bark.
Blizzard-driven or blind on a starless night
they made their way out onto the lake ice
where they lost the scent of shore.
For some there was a great Crack!
& a quick thrashing panic
as the lake just opened up & took them
whole in its mouth.
Others starved slowly,
scratching at the snow crust
looking for roots and leaves
below the drifts, wondering
at the barren nature of this place.
Shelterless, & weak with cold & hunger
they lay down at last to die.
Their shivers stopping long before the
                                       the sun rose.


How They Were Found

Spring & they wash in,
come to rest in the shallow water
waves slapping the halves
of their pale, open & rotting bellies
back & forth,

Winter was slow for them
frozen, lying on wide plains of ice.
On clear nights I could see them in my dreams.
Strong winds blew them up & down the lake
until their fur took root in cracks
& they held to the ice, secure
waiting out the thaw.

When the ice breaks up
shoves its way up the shoreline,
I wade in the new water
relearning the beaches
barefoot, tracing the waterline.

There were three that year—
white & torn, fanning flesh & skin in the current.
I watched them inch towards the sand
wading close as I dared.
I couldn't understand the silence
of bodies below water
lacking the stench, blood, and flies
that mark kills left to melt into soil.

As the wind & sand cleaned them
I collected the bones.
Placed them on an abandoned boat
to bleach & dry.
I wanted to rebuild the deer,
stringing bones tight onto wire
to chime against each other in the wind.
I wanted to reconnect their mechanism,
revel in the inherent graceful motion
of these animals, its measure most visible
beneath muscle & sinew, tendon & hide.
Under the hide I felt a hidden tension
that wanted to be visible, revealed.

But in the rains, they returned to the water
or were stolen by raccoons & dogs.
Only a few are left now;
artifacts like saint’s relics,
souvenirs of a vision passed on after passing on,
through this world and into the next:
a skull I keep in my rafters
the first I found with antlers,
a scapula & several ribs on the windowsill,
a femur I carved as a handle to hold a blade.
The rest lay scattered in their own array.

Ornithology Of An Omen

One night, two winters past
when fall's first chill was coming on
the moon rose full
on the Eastern rim of the valley.
By the time it climbed to the higher branches
of the old apple tree in the yard
we had finished a late dinner
& Johnny headed out to his cabin to sleep.
Just out the door his excited shout
ran the length of the valley & back
to pull us out under the sky.
Aurora borealis ringed the entire horizon
like dawn encroaching on every front
in some surprise maneuver to surround us.
And high in the center of the Southern sky
just to the right of that moon
the lights had become fiery white eagles,
unmistakable in form!
With feathers flared & soaring wings
they streaked across the sky
from a hole in the stars.
     We climbed the roof in awe.
For some time no one spoke
we just watched those eagle lights go by.
      Finally it came around to story telling
the time a bald eagle
swooped at Mary's car
missing the windshield by a wingspread.
The bald eagle I'd seen in the Boundary Waters
a fierce mama eagle, she flew
within five feet of my face
when we canoed too close
to her invisible riverside nest & young.
I told about the eagle nest
I'd been taken to see as a child,
deep in swampland,
somewhere near Lake Skeegemog,
the fledgling's cries for food
& the small feathers I found below it
kept sacred for years.
The turtle eggs I carried home
perfect white spheres found in beachsand
I reburied them on the shore of our pond
hoping to see them hatch.
By then, all the eagles above us had flown
disappeared somewhere in the forest
to the North & behind us
invisible through the trees.
We thought the magic gone, though
the sky still ran silver & now some red.
There was still that hole in the stars.
It was cold.  We huddled & shivered
while Johnny told his eagle tales.
Someone said that to see an eagle
close, in the wild, was considered a sign
by Native Americans.  A spirit call to shamanism.
Finally the cold drove us off the roof
but as we gathered in the last of the blankets
the eagles returned.
They burned across the sky
wings moving in actual flight
& they plunged, one by one, back
through the hole in the stars.
We climbed the roof again & watched
till they were gone.
As the last of the eagles passed through,
the hole just closed up,
like some hidden door
to a secret passage.
The stars came back.
It was colder suddenly
& quiet.
The moon was climbin' down
a different apple tree
on the other side of the yard.
We almost whispered as we said "goodnight".
I don't think any of us slept.
There was no point in it.
We’d already seen something better
than any of us was like to dream.


New red bark replacing
winter's dry red berries.

Iridescent feathering,
fluffing & strutting of the blackbirds.
If it were cloudy the whole season
they'd have no hatching.

The pleasure of fitting stone to finger,
one quick flick of the wrist & it spins
skipping over the water
splashes giving into ripples.

I only throw the flat ones.
They make more splashes per capita,
slower to fill up the river.


Bees as thick as honey
on the blossoms of the apple,
three & four deep to each flower.

It must taste sweet.

Mumbling a harmony
they have built their nest
near blossoms now sonorous
with the hymn of their wings.

Even with the windows closed
the sound of their industry
shakes my shack,
through the walls.


The bear prepares his nest
           for slumber.
People split & stack their wood,
          split & stack their wood,
& pull from summer stashes
      The hand-me-down, heirloom,
dowry, down quilts & colorful
    handwoven woolens.
The hunt & the harvest are
            serious now
as we prepare the larder for
            the harder months ahead.
& lovers draw the blankets up
                  & smile.


Winter came on Hallowe’en that year
strong winds bringing in big weather.

I stood on the porch, smoking,
watching it roll above me,
serious, dark and scary
when you think about it.
It was the first time I realized fully
that ice could form in the bones,
that stranded travelers died sometimes
with tears frozen on their faces.

All that night I heard the wind
shrieking like departed souls
ripping through the branches of the trees.
It was the death of a season,
tearing the last colors away.
I moved my Shiva statue from the window frame
because it was dancing
and making me nervous.

In the morning, the world had become entirely white,
as if all the haunts in the region had danced
a wild game of tag and lost their sheets,
blanketing the newly dead land

Notes of a Woodcarver

I wanted to capture
    the work of the plow,
the movement of glaciers,
the perfect dovetailed shifts
            of the forest,
the music of rivers,
              in the grain of wood.
I wanted to read the way the land lies
        like the lines in a palm,
the history & future all tied in knots.
       As plain as the Plains.
As mysterious as we.

Puget Sound Timber



Long stretch of beach,
No one comes here.
    Logs & pilings,
    remains of a long gone pier
    lie across the rocks
          or form short


The walls lean tall
against the sky
tarstained, splitting, grey.
Two of time's lost sculptures
trainwrecking into one another.
Spanning years of storms & surf
the pieces fall, suspended
in a moment of geologic time.

Altar Knotted to Alterations Found

Arranged within the walls
of an old wooden box:
seashell & bearskull,
shattered piece of handblown glass
wedged in the socket, swirled.
Chinese lion standing pedastled
on a soapstone seal, uncarved.
Above, a buckle and an ancient clasp
both bronze beside a silver bowl.
The word Odin written over
a boat and the sea on both sides.
A conjunction of icons and amulets
pleasing to the eye.  A calculus of space
rendered now into sound.

John T. Unger poet

I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

Before becoming a visual artist, I spent 15 years as a poet. I studied poetry at Interlochen Arts Academy, Naropa, Stone Circle and on the streets. I performed my work for years at Stone Circle, solo shows, poetry readings, and at Lollapalooza in 1996.

I still write poems, but only if I can make them fit the constraints ofTwitter.

Mobile: 231.584.2710 (9 to 5 PST only) | Email me

Art IS my day job

Popular Pages + Entries

  • All content © 1992-2013, John T Unger.