Christian Info News, August 1997
Cockburn's prophetic passion linked with poetic depth in Charity
By Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton
BRUCE COCKBURN'S 23rd album, The Charity of Night, is populated by weeping angels, a solitary horseman, secret police, nomads, friends, pilgrims, lascivious police, and prophets. For people who have followed Cockburn's work over the years, there is nothing surprising about this. Indeed, the power of much of Cockburn's artistry is found precisely in the way he weaves biblical images and motifs into his vision of contemporary experience. We expect to find lascivious police and prophets.
And we have also come to expect the voice of the prophet in his lyrics. Yet the last few albums have seemed less prophetic in their more settled sense of life. That is, until the release of The Charity of Night. In this album Cockburn's prophetic passion has been reawakened with a poetic depth and evocative richness not seen for years.
But this is a tempered prophecy. Gone is the strident triumphalism that occasionally surfaced in the early '80s, replaced by a reflective, questioning and lamenting stance like that of Jeremiah. In 'The Mines of Mozambique,' for example, Cockburn describes the scourge of land mines in that African country: "And under the feeding frenzy / There's a wound that will not mend." The evocation of Jeremiah 30:12 -- "Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing" -- is unmistakable.
Jeremiah has been named the weeping prophet. And this album knows much about tears. 'Get up Jonah' is a self-imposed kick in the ass for the poet prophet:
There's howling in the factory yard
There's pounding in my head
I'm swollen up with unshed tears
Bloated like the dead.
The voiced pain of the factory yard reverberates in the prophet's head and if he doesn't speak to that pain he will swell up with those unshed tears. Again the echo of Jeremiah: "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (20:9).
This is not a happy, pious sentiment for Jeremiah. It is a lament in which the prophet complains that the Lord had deceived him and overpowered him so that he could proclaim little more than violence and destruction to Israel. Cockburn is in the same boat. 'The Whole Night Sky' is the lament of a prophet looking back on his painful ministry:
They turned their backs
I made it too hard
Every place they touched me
Is a laceration now.
The prophet must face rejection and betrayal, but he is aware that it is God who is at the source of his troubles. So Cockburn continues:
Sometimes a wind comes
out of nowhere and
Knocks you off your feet and look --
see my tears --
They fill the whole night sky.
This wind, this divine creative and leading presence, can send the prophet head over heels. And when that happens, the poet cries out, "look [you the listener and You the wind], see my tears," no longer unshed but now filling the whole night sky."
Where does this leave the prophet? Where does this leave Cockburn? While the first cut on the album, 'Night Train,' contemplates the possibility of escape from the prophetic call in all of its pain, 'The Whole Night Sky' makes it clear that for Cockburn, at least, no escape is possible. The train of escape is off the tracks:
Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high
By the tatters of my faith.
Sensitive Cockburn listeners know how he got there. Something called 'Big Circumstance' (Cockburn code for providence) has brought him here. But Big Circumstance will just as often put the prophet in place by whipped-up storms ('Get up Jonah') and violent upheavals as by gentle leading by the hand. And so the prophet finds himself desperate: when your faith is in tatters, what can you do but hang on?
But a prophet's calling is to discern the times; to raise a voice of justice is hard to fulfil when all you have is tatters of faith. 'Pacing the Cage' is perhaps the most beautiful song on the album (wonderfully enhanced by Rob Wasserman's exquisite bass solo). It opens with the lines:
Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloodied sword.
The angel weeps. Perhaps another day has passed by and we are not saved (cf. Jer 8:20). Indeed, this was another day of bloodshed and violence. But whose blood? Can the prophet discern what is going on here? Where does that sword point? Cockburn confesses:
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it's pointing toward.
Here is a prophet who has lost all of his self-assured bravado, a chastened prophet, weathered by the struggle. He confesses to constructing various personae along the way. He has taken us in. He has sung us his spells and offered us his prophecy and now he needs to confess that
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can't see what's round the bend
Sometimes the road
leads through dark
darkness is your
This is an album about night. Night, or darkness, is a theme in eight of its 11 songs. Arid night is often connected with memory -- another theme running through the album, which often has a feeling of a poetic retrospective. These two themes come together in 'Birmingham Shadows':
Head full of horrors
Heart full of night
At home in the darkness but hungry
I can only remember scenes, never the
stories I live.
When your head is full of memories of horror, it's not surprising that your heart would be full of night. These are dark memories that have formed you and so you better get used to being at home in the darkness. But this is not a defeated acquiescence for Cockburn because he is still hungry for the dawn. And perhaps it is the horror of the memories that renders them untellable in terms of a story, reduced to disjointed, fragmented scenes.
In the title track, the poet offers us three such scenes. These are profoundly ambiguous, dangerous and unsettling vignettes of sexual aggression, revolution and erotic intensity. Yet in the words of the chorus, these scenes constitute the "wave on wave of life" for the poet - they are the "haunting hands of memory" that "pluck silver strands of soul." These memories, in all their fragmentariness and ambiguity tear a strip off us. But they are memories, they are past. And so the chorus concludes:
The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night.
In painful memory there is some clarity. Things can be seen differently, perspective can be gained. But this is not the clarity of final arrival, of figuring it all out. No, the poet invites us to offer our bows and raise a toast to the charity of night. Darkness is a friend precisely because it doesn't allow us complete clarity. Not all our memories can bear the full light of day and so we should be grateful to the charity of night.
Even here the poet remains ambiguous. Yes, darkness is a friend; yes, there is a charity to night; yes, he is at home in the darkness; but he is hungry for the dawn. Yes, he is a nomad, following his own song lines ('Birmingham Shadows'), but he has also been led on his path, sometimes by a wind that knocks him off his feet, and he longs for a homecoming of security and sustenance.
The last cut on the album, 'Strange Waters,' is a meditation on Psalm 23. The poet confesses that through all that he has seen, paths he has walked and love he has burned, he has been led by a divine hand:
You been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful
Lights in the dark.
It has not been all dark. There have been streams of beautiful lights in the night. But the poet is tired. He is lacerated, his tears fill that beautiful lighted sky, his head still full of horrors, and his heart full of night. So it is not surprising that Psalm 23 remains unfulfilled for him and he transposes this psalm of thankful confidence into a lament:
But where is my pastureland
In these dark valleys?
If I Ioose my grip
Will I take flight?
It is hard to experience the world as a pastureland when you're hanging from a high wire by the tatters of your faith. And so the poet asks, if I let go, if I loose my grip, if I follow my own advice that "every thing is bull.... but the open hand" and open my hand, will I fall to my death, or will my tattered faith take flight? The spiritual turbulence of prophetic faith is lyrically and musically echoed in this brilliant album.
If Cockburn is right and everything is bull.... but the open hand, then this album, not least in its closing lines, invites the listener who would dare stand in prophetic solidarity with the poet, to an open-handed faith. Only then will a prophetic spirituality take flight.
Brian Walsh is the Christian Reformed chaplain at the University of Toronto. Richard Middleton is assistant professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. They are the co-authors of Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be (InterVarsity Press).