41 posts from Prose

Postcards from the Land of the Dead: Introduction

“The moment I finished reading I fell immediately into a deep sleep and had the strangest dreams I've ever had”—Marilyn Houlberg, Professor of Art and Anthropology at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago

In the spring of 1997 my friend Johnny Berst sent me the following postcard out of the blue. It had been a long time since I’d heard from him…

It’s strange…how everyone wants to go to heaven…but nobody wants to die. Everybody’s afraid of death…avoids it…lives in denial of it. Calls it the “opposite” of life. And yet…I find death to be one of my favorite parts of life. There’s nothing more beautiful on earth than dying corn stalks shaking in the October wind. Or the beautiful way flowers die…just as much a part of their beauty as the way they blossomed. Everybody should die at least once a day. This is Earth…things die!! What’s all the fuss about?? It’s like people moving to Olympia and then complaining about the rain. Things die…things get wet. Fuck…I’m soaked!

p.s. Mr. Muerte will cure your mopey heart!

This was the begining of a three-year call and response conversation—a Life line, connecting our lives and stories across the continent. His postscript about Mr. Muerte had set the tone; later, I wrote him this—

I grabbed a big handful of your postcards this morning as I walked out the door, thinking I would re-read them at lunch and they got all shuffled up, rattling around my lunch bag. I pulled them out and thought “pick a card—any card” and thought “Wow! These are just as good as a Tarot deck!” I can just pull them out and lay them down and tell fortunes! After all, as you said “seems like all we ever talk about is art, death, love and food” and certainly that's all that ever crosses the mind of an oracle —I always thought it would be good to write a poem for each Tarot card and memorize them and recite them at random—well, here it is in a way. After all, isn't the Scorpio born with the Tarot inscribed deep in blood within? Can a Scorpio poet ever really do anything but pick a card?

Although the cards were written as a dialogue, they really don't need to be read in any specific order. You can read them in the order I post them, which will be roughly chronological, or, just pick a card…


The lands we inhabit have become unsuited to men of great heart—

In Cataca, the houses rise from the lake on slender stilts, strikingly painted in a profusion of bright colors. Aching Island primaries bellow in the swelter of a burning sun; the shimmer of heat waves cast as refractory rainbows sparking from steel roofs. Hanging all about, twisting slightly in the light breeze, festoons of bamboo cages are packed with iguanas, a staple of the native cuisine. Flowering vines flow from rafter and deck to waver just above the deep, smooth water. Azure and ruby colored hummingbirds arabesque between the vine flowers and waterlillies, colliding on occasion with enormous emerald dragonflies.

Let's move to the saturated land of Mr. Muerte. Distracted by cries of love and moans of sorrow issuing from night's windows under noon's sun, we can stumble happily over the corpses of sad beggars.


Spring is rolling into town like the most disreputable carnival. Bring on the chimps and chumps, the barkers and the bastards, the stilt-men on unicycles and all the rest. It's been too quiet for too long and too cold besides. I want a New Orleans jazz band dirging through the dirty streets proclaiming the death of cold, the demise of slow death by boredom's sword. It may not yet be the lyrical time of renewed green but the nights are beautiful neon-fused tents of fog, struck up over the bones and corpses, rubble and blood that rain and flooding have drug from winter hiding. Get me a snake man with a sousaphone, a trumpeting herd of pachyderms, drummers beating rhythm on camels' humps! Gimme a bagpiping lion tamer holding his beasts at bay through sheer power of his hypnotic glissando grace notes. Tropical festival puts winter to the torch, lighting the sky with juggled flames and the eternal delight of Mr. Muerte's jungle republic of rhythm and dance and revelry. It gets harder to go to work each day.

Let's move to the saturated land of Mr. Muerte. Distracted by cries of love and moans of sorrow issuing from night's windows under noon's sun, we can stumble happily over the corpses of sad beggars.

The Eternal Coffee Break of the Soul

Wage labor wastes lives, steals our precious mortal hours and deadens our nerves and perceptions. Mr. Muerte laughs and points a finger at these office zombies, dancing his little shuffle jig of joy because he will not have to work for them, no, he needn't work for them, for they are dead already in their shambling shuck of petty monotony. The worker works that he might live yet never lives to see that day. Every foot on the ladder leads to the grave and grave leads not to greener pastures unless the oblivion of life unlived leads one to prefer chewing cud with the worms.

Oh, let my people go, Mr. Boss Man, to the river where we ain't gonna study work no more, ain't gonna study work no more. Lead me into the land of the eternal coffee break of the soul, the bottomless cup! Endless nights of carousing with Mr. Muerte!

Take Me Down To Robert Johnson Refinery


Those men who worked or had worked in the Jones and Laughlin steel mill played into the night by the light cast from the fire of the mill's big smokestack.

Reneé Stout, remembering long night jams on her childhood porch.

I remember the summer I worked sun up to sun down, building barns for Leroy. I'd come home filthy, tired, ragged and sad and I'd pick up my guitar or learn poems until I only had four hours left to sleep. Those smokestacks and steel mills and all their fire are only shadows of the real shadow fire that drives us like burning locomotives to flay our fingers on six steel strings.

When Robert Johnson struck his deal, he traded the seemingly eternal Hell of work that guts a man's soul slowly, over years, for real fires of eternal burning. But in return, he gets to play by the light of the smokestack and throw his sparks until the end. Six strings are the bars of his prison; seven days of the week incarcerate the steel workers. Johnson got the better deal.

A Souvenir Shop of Body Parts

Ypsi is the capital of coiffure, home of hair, nabob of nails and tanning bed heaven. A dead industrial town, it has given itself over to the arts of the mortician, prettying up the pallor of people who live under perpetually gray skies. In Ypsilanti, women wear such elaborate do's that they must sleep like bats, hanging from rafters. More piled curls than a Louis Quatorze baroque opera house, enough fake nails to build the dreadnought ship of Norse apocalypse and bring on Ragnorak. Yes, Ypsi is a huge mojo cachet of skin, hair and nails. A souvenir shop of body parts—wigs and skin flicks, whores, tattoos and untouchables. A big gris gris mess balancing precarilously somewhere between bordello and abbatoire.

Only traffic signals, sirens and neon

Stepping out on the porch, I light my smoke, the sky breaks, lakes of rain bury vision in further darkness under an already dark night sky. Only traffic signals, sirens and neon glint vaguely down the street. Close by, a tremendous crack of lightning is followed by someone's true, lost scream of terror, then silence and long minutes of thunder rumbling the dust off a dying town— Land of the Dead. Town of the Dead. Dead town of industry pulled up and moved on. Another stroke strikes a switchbox bringing the train guard down, warning clanging like a shrill metal thunder, screaming hoarse…A ghost train, no train, smoke train, steaming down bloody electric tracks from sky to ground, from the sky under the earth to my door…It was a night like this, about a year ago, surrounded by sound, water, light, dark and raw electric flayed sky that I first asked Sara if I could touch her…

Harps out and wailing

Yesterday I was saying we should move to the Land of the Dead and Sara wanted to know if it was a real place and where it is. Of course it's real, I said, but it moves around, everything overlaps… Sort of like where you go when you dream—you just wind up there suddenly, or slowly, and you look around and say, ah, Land of the Dead and there you are…and so many, many nights we've stood there, harps out and wailing with jaws dropped in awe under the heavy and beating sky pulsed with mad arabesques of stellar destinies and broken chance, all the gauges and compasses compacted into endless swirling circles spinning with the pressure of gravity spoked from all directions… Yes, yes, yes, the familiar Land of the Dead, Crossroads blasting nerves to raw inferno splinters so many, many, nights, oh yes!

Straight outta the sky, through the spine

Check out Cab Calloway's line-up in this photo! This is how music should look! This is what dreams sound like! Look at that lightning! Listen to those drums thundering as the horns crackle spastic bolts of pure electricity—straight outta the sky, through the spine, swelling in the groin to grinding, hip-thumping dances of ecstasy! BALÁNSE! Two girls turning circles on the stairs with platters of yams on their heads! Bring on the dancing yam-yams! Look at their gam-gams shaking their can-cans all over the stage! There are no dancing Balánse girls in this photo—they may have just left the stage—they may be in the wings struggling with sweet orange tubers, they may not yet have come to the Land of the Dead or maybe someone forgot to meet them at the bus stop. But when you look close, I think this is what the radios look like in the Land of the Dead—crazed men swinging like hell in a little box on your night stand.

You can lose your soul anywhere

Duke Ellington one time said:

Rhythm came from Africa to America.
Do you know what it does to you?
Exactly what it's supposed to do.”

I remember the night we drove Detroit back streets of your early childhood—a scratchy tape of your father's jazz 78's crashing through the speakers in the dash. The bombed and burned-out buildings seemed a natural setting for those tunes, sad and quiet but peaceful; the way I felt about leaving Michigan. Sometime way past midnight you pulled up to a house and took me to meet Rita. As we leaving, she looked at my palm and told me to avoid criminal elements and not to even think about getting married for at least five years. If only I had listened…Well, listen to this—“It is not the danger of losing your soul in such a place. You can lose your soul anywhere. It is that in a place with this quality of city, soul is the medium of exchange.” But in Detroit or Ypsilanti, in any city with little to offer in exchange, it just may be possible to get a rebate. Look for the reflection of my headlights in the sky tonight as I wander once again those forsaken dark roads.

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

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