FOREVER WORDS
The Unknown Poems
by Johnny Cash
(Cannongate, $33)

Get past the dry, academic introduction by poet Paul Muldoon, who also edits here, and this is quite fun and a perfect gift for Cash fans.

What you get is an attractively packaged hardback book of unpublished poems and writings from the Man in Black; the earliest from 1944 when he was just 12 years old and the last, Forever, in 2003.

Only Cash knows for sure, but many pieces here read like songs he never got round to setting to music

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It's illustrated with some facsimile reproductions of Cash's own handwritten pages. Apparently Cash was proud of his penmanship and it's interesting to compare it during the years as his health and spirit waxed and waned.

Only Cash knows for sure, but many pieces here read like songs he never got round to setting to music and, much like a recent project where T-Bone Burnett selected artists to put to music some old, unused Dylan lyrics to music, Cash's son, John Carter Cash, has given some of these words to artists Chris Cornell, Jamey Johnson, Brad Paisley, even Jewel so an album is due later this year.

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But for now we have the words alone. It's Cash, so theology, drugs, death, love and sex are key themes.

Check the raunchy Silk and Denim - circa 1990 - which veers from the courtly to the carnal in its celebration of a red-headed beauty: "Soft blue denim on her hips/ I tried not to undress her/ But my mind could not be passive". No surprise that Cash, who'd been married to June more than 20 years at that point, kept that one to himself.

Another is I'm Comin' Honey written in a scratchy hand on Delta Airline stationary in the 50s most likely to his first wife Vivian Liberto (musician Roseanne Cash's mother):

"I was driving in the rain/ twenty miles from Bangor, Maine/ When I realised how much you mean to me/ So I turned the rig around/ Filled her up outside of town/ Took the shortest route southbound to Tennessee."

Johnny Cash - The Unknown Poems
Johnny Cash - The Unknown Poems

Meanwhile the wry 80's piece

Don't Make a Movie About Me

-

"Don't let 'em drag old Hickory Lake/ For my telephones and bottles and roller skates"

- shows Cash could have a good laugh at himself.

The stand-out pieces here are the short California Poem and Going, Going, Gone, a vivid lyric about addiction that someone like contemporary outlaw singer Jamey Johnson could do wonders with given the right musical setting where Cash displays a poet's precision and a musician's sense of rhythm.

"Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder
Fumes and smoke and vapor
The payoff is the same in the end ... Convenient ways
to get the poison in"

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