The cover of Rosanne Cash’s memoir Composed: A Memoir arrested me. The author is sitting on a bench looking directly at the viewer. The blurry background invites us to concentrate on her face and the costume she is wearing. Johnny Cash fans will notice the black shirt, an iconic Cash color his daughter borrows without fear. Women will examine the gunmetal gray nail polish and matching boots, the diamond wedding ring, the tight-but-not-skinny jeans, and women over fifty will love the gray roots showing under her red hair. Everyone will notice the kind but knowing gaze and the slight smile. Here is a woman come of age, says the cover. Her smile contains secrets she just might share with you if you open this book.
But before you succumb to the visual seduction, a single word jumps off the cover: Composed. The yellow, weather-beaten letters of the title are smaller than the bright red CASH and the white Rosanne above them. Down below are two small words in white: A Memoir. When I first heard this title, I called it perfect. That was before I read the book. Now that I have allowed Rosanne Cash’s story to speak to me, I admire the title even more. Here’s why: It’s singular and simple on one level–short and memorable. Yet it contains layers of relevant meanings–a single word with seven different definitions. The American Heritage Dictionary defines compose as follows:
v. com·posed, com·pos·ing, com·pos·es
Each of these seven definitions applies to this memoir in one way or another. I have selected three of them, corresponding to three levels of meaning, as the frame on which to base this review:
Level I. Composed: To make or create by putting together parts or elements.
Level II. To create or produce (a literary or musical piece).
Level III. To make (oneself) calm or tranquil.
Level I of Composed contains the story of the artist as a young woman. The world still does not have enough of these stories. (One of the best,Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, the story of singer Thea Kronborg, came to mind several times.) The artist takes the fragments of the external world, and of her own life, and creates out of them an object of beauty. This cannot happen immediately; it is the work of a lifetime.
In Rosanne Cash’s case, the fragments were dramatic: a famous father who was loving, absent, and addicted to drugs during most of her childhood, a mother who was distracted by grief and anger, a spotty formal education, frequent moves, coming of age in the 1960’s London music scene, divorce–both of her parents and of her first marriage to Rodney Crowell, the births of three daughters and one son, a miscarriage, polyps on the vocal chords, and brain surgery.
To bring all of these elements, and more, into a unified whole, Cash chooses a complex structure. She moves back and forth in time instead of chronologically, does not number or name the chapters, and yet leaves the reader with a feeling of completion. No small task.
Cash’s extensive experience in all forms of writing helps her know what to include and what to let go. She makes us believe that our own fragments can also come together. She is like Toni Morrison’s Paul D. who says of Sethe: “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” A woman who can befriend other minds must first love her own.
Her less-than-perfect mother provided her with the means to do so when she gave her old papers she had preserved from Rosanne’s school days. Among them was an assignment from seventh-grade English class to write metaphors. The words “a lonely road is a bodyguard”–her own words from childhood–remind her in adulthood that she possesses a talent, and a source of resiliency, that will sustain her all her life. She uses them in a song and then again in this book as a thread that ties all the pieces of her own life together.
Level II of Composed moves from piecing wholes out of fragments to the use of that process in the creation of songs and stories. Some sections of the book dealing with how individual songs or albums came together will only interest fans and music buffs, but whenever the stories include relationship elements, all readers perk up. Most interesting of all are the occasions when Rosanne manages to capture her famous father’s full attention. She does this by her ignorance at first. He is appalled that she doesn’t know the 100 songs that created the foundation of American country music. The list he gives her, and her avid study of it, result in a beautiful album I discussed here.
Rosanne builds on this list, studies chord structure and picking styles with members of the Carter family, and begins to absorb the lessons of the great musicians who preceded her. She also begins to write, not only songs, but stories. My favorite section of the book is the exchange between father and daughter while she is writing about her youth and her father is in an intensive care unit after another harrowing near-death experience. As she reads, he marvels at how much passion she had inside, probably connecting it to his own. Then, when she finishes, he says, “Just to think of you makes my heart swell with pride.” Words like these are gold to both a writer and a daughter. And Rosanne knows just how to employ them artistically a second time in the book.
The descriptions of collaborations with other artists, especially with Johnny Cash (“September When It Comes”), illustrate how spiritual and collective works of art can be. They are best when composed with at least one other mind and heart.
Finally, the Level III meaning of “composed” is all about a state of mind, composure, tranquility. Many writers long to find such a state, but they can only earn it from honest examination of their failings and feelings, including anger and frustration, depression and disappointment. Composed left me feeling tranquil even though it contained so many cycles of doubt and elation, adventures and misadventures. Tonal quality in a memoir matters as much as tonal quality in country music. Too nasal and it sounds whiny. Too sweet and it sounds like denial. Cash avoids the extremes by telling us she is still embarrassed by past oversights and by shining light upon the many kinds of sorrows she has experienced without blaming anyone else for them.
But what she does better than anything else is listen for beautiful language, celebrate it in the moment, and then, when you have almost forgotten it, swoop in at the end like an eagle carrying a precious treasure. Many of her chapters end with quotes or allusions perfectly calibrated to stir the heart. And the last words of the book pack the biggest punch of all.
You’ll want to read this book from cover to cover.