Blue Rider Press/Canongate
Johnny Cash, famously, never threw anything away…ironic given he all but threw his career away a number of times. But the work within and around that career always stayed. He kept it all. As evidenced by the amount of “lost” recordings resurfacing…and in his after-life career the forgotten demos and wasted takes play out like mini-masterpieces. Not really so with his Unknown Poems but nice to have them anyway. Edited and introduced by Paul Muldoon, Forever Words is a solid volume of gospel-infused poem-songs. Many of them feel like first drafts, barely any of them seem like a definitive take. But it’s fascinating to consider them – parts of the process and puzzle, false starts, early thoughts, afterthoughts, clearly a part of his songwriting craft, and some hobbyist effort as a god-fearing soul – committed to getting down the word as part of honouring the lord.
That doesn’t mean it’s only worth viewing these words as the leftover curios – it does help fill in the spaces around the man, a towering myth now – as much or more than he ever was – and shows the obvious and overt themes of his songs (love, religion, struggle – with both love and religion and the daily struggle of fronting up, ploughing on) as permanent preoccupations; they didn’t so much inform his work as they did plague the man.
And there’s some fun and funny wordplays here and there – as well as some thoughtful odes.
Stripped of the music and in particular his burring voice, the words lose some of their power. Not that these were always words meant for song. But you get the feeling that Cash might had spoken-sung some of these poems as lyrics. At least some of them…
So it’s a volume for fans, not quite the total, erm, Cash-in that some might think – but certainly not a way in. You have to have been summoned already, you have to have been part of the world of Cash’s music, his songs, to want to buy in here at all.
It’s an easy read with one or two pieces getting close to some sort of revelation. Charming, rather than absolutely necessary. And in the end that’s usually the case with musicians-turned-poets, with leftover collections, with side-steps that run parallel to the main order of business.