I usually say that with poetry, you get in however you can. There are things that work on you– a memory, an image, an idea, or even a piece of language. For me, it is often a piece of language that grabs me first, either something read, remembered or overheard.
February 26 is Johnny Cash’s birthday. He would have been 81 today. It is hard to believe that he died 11 years ago, because his music still sounds so fresh and he just seems present. Saturday on the college radio station, the djs were all playing Johnny Cash songs. One struck me specifically, an old recording of “I’ll Take You Back Home, Kathleen.” It was actually a single word that grabbed my attention: “bedim.” When’s the last time you heard that word?
At that point in the song, I couldn’t tell if he was singing about someone who was dead or alive. Was it her body he’d take home? And where was home? Who was Kathleen to him? All I heard was a man who had sung quite a few hymns in his life. He sang it for all the world like a church hymn.
The word “bedim” and that song worked on me overnight, and in the morning I woke up with this poem almost at my fingertips. I looked up the lyrics and found that the Irish balladeer, promising his beloved that he’ll take her back home to Ireland because the New World has proven too harsh, notes that tears bedim her eyes. It’s a love song to a living woman. But I couldn’t get that hymn by Johnny Cash out of my mind…
It’s just a draft. For me, this poem won’t be finished until it, too, is a ballad, in 4-line stanzas with some simple rhythm to carry it along. But here it is, Johnny’s birthday, so happy birthday, Johnny Cash.
I’ll Take You Home Again
When Johnny Cash sings to Kathleen
that simple tune of longing for Ireland,
and promises to take her home again,
it becomes a hymn in a backwoods church,
and Ireland becomes heaven, Kathleen dead,
promises empty and nothing left but regret.
When Johnny Cash mournfully sings the line,
and tears bedim your loving eyes,
it is a Christian mother’s eyes bedimmed
because her son has gone astray, to drink,
even so far as prison, some motherless place,
and the only one who can help is Jesus.
And then by song’s end it is Jesus at last
promising to take Johnny, all we poor sinners,
to where your heart will feel no pain.
and where the fields are lush and green,
to take us all home again.