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Poison Arrow - Allison Russell



The other half of Po' Girl (see last 4 posts) was Allison Russell, who served a glorious but generally folky caterpillar apprenticeship in Po' Girl (2003 - 2010) and Birds of Chicago (2012-2018) as well as making the album "Songs of Our Native Daughters" with a group comprising herself, Rhiannon  GiddensAmythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla in 2019, before bursting out of her cocoon in 2021 with her superb album "Outside Child".


Although I knew her 2008 song "No Shame" from the Po' Girl LP "Deer in the Night" which documents the 10 years of her physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather from the age of 5 to 15, I'd played her 2021 first solo album maybe forty times before the penny dropped. The whole record, "Outside Child", is a coming to terms with Russell's childhood, an exorcism even, and, most importantly, self-forgiveness, a realisation that on no account should she or others who have been abused, feel shame. Allison herself has said the record represents a reclamation of her own life, and has described the record as a "roadmap for surviving abuse" (see people'com).


Allison Russell's father was an Afro-Caribbean visitor to Montreal when he met her mother, returning to his home in Grenada without knowledge of Russell's conception or birth. When Russell was 5 years old, her Scottish Canadian mother began living with a white supremacist who, for ten years, abused her until she ran away from their home in Montreal to Vancouver at the age of 15. Five years later, hearing that her nice and nephew were going to move in with her mother and stepfather, Russell overcame her sense of shame, and reported her stepfather to the authorities, convinced she had to try to do something to save them while at the same time worried that she would be ignored. Her action, however, prompted other young women who he'd abused to come forward and he was subsequently convicted to three years in jail. As Russell states in "No Shame":


"....He took from me ten years of childhood, spent three years in jail at most.

How can a country's code of justice be such a world away from just?

Mother says she still loves him, tells me that I'm doing fine,

that he needs her more than I do, so I really should not mind...."


"Outside Girl" is Russell's answer to the difficult questions she poses in the stanza above, the idea that if you can forgive, what doesn't kill you can make you stronger. She isn't forgiving her father and mother, she's forgiving herself: and by restoring her self respect, she can forgive and respect, even help, others.


In "Poison Arrow", two songs from the end of "Outside Girl", when she says "Namaste", meaning I am free and "I bow to you in respect" she is also saying "Look at me, I've made it though, I'm better now. You can make it too" The song is almost too beautiful, wrought from sadness, almost too moving in its relief and forgiveness; Russell's understated yet emotionally pitch-perfect vocal and words reach deep into the soul:


"Poison arrow be kind to me and I'll be kind to you.

It's not just your poison, it's the bow, the string,

shaft and feather too,

the rush of the wind,

the blue sky above,

the rain that soaked the ground

to give the oleander love.

Go in peace, be not afraid (go in peace be not afraid),

Roll 'em easy, Namaste.

All you sad and broken travellers, come on.


Poison arrow broke in my chest

but I'm in my finery

at Le Divan on Boulevard St. Laurent

sipping dry sherry.

The sun is bleeding slow,

she dies in pink and blue

Etta's on the radio,

singing "trust in me in all you do".

Go in peace be not afraid (go in peace be not afraid)

Roll 'em easy, Namaste

All you sad and broken travellers, come on..."


....and when she hits the French third verse, returning to the language of her girlhood, calling out a message of encouragement and hope to all the other little girls, it's so moving it's almost too much.


Je te souhaite la paix.

Je te souhaite l'acceptance.

Je te souhaite une deuxieme chance

et le coeur, le coeur d'un enfant.

Routier ,routier,

chanter, chanter!

L'heure des miracles est arrivée

Le poison peut-etre médecin

si t'on bois une goute seulement."


(translated into English):


"....I wish you peace. I wish you acceptance. I wish you a second chance and the heart, the heart of a child Road road, sing, sing! The time for miracles has arrived. Poison can be a doctor, if you only drink a taste."


There's a recording of her singing this in Paste Studio NVL in Nashville on Youtube. I've never made it through to the end.

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