Born a little soon, raised on too much moon,
learned to get by on “Leave me alone.”
Be the restless one, be the burning son.
Then you filled your hands with oleander and
all the strippings of pride gone astray.
All that secret work, all those pretty words
that still don’t hold you
Now you spend your days in the dappled rays
of his love like a fern in the shade.
In a world of green no one’s ever seen
and oh it holds you.
“Oleander” is a song on Kris Delmhorst’s new album, Shotgun Singer, that she apparently recorded entirely on her own in a friend’s house up in the Berkshires. It is a delicate and dark piece of chamber pop; the melody is spare, with space between the notes, but the overall effect is claustrophobic. The cello largely carries the melody, but a piano contributes strategically placed single notes and an effects-laden guitar adds a repeated phrase.
She sings very close to the microphone, very quietly, so that the breath of the room itself is part of the delivery. The music makes clear the ambivalence of the lyrics. In three short stanzas Delmhorst describes a transition in someone’s life, a change that takes place after filling one’s hands with oleander.
Oleander is generally accepted as being one of the most poisonous plants known. All parts of the plant are full of toxins and even touching it can produce a rash. Eating it can be deadly. On the other hand, the alternative medicine community considers extracts of oleander to have healing properties.
Nerium oleander is a shrub that grows in dry river washes from Spain and Morocco through the Mediterranean and into south Asia. Its large range and its reputation as a source of toxins have brought it to the attention of people wherever it is found, and it has many names (rosa de jardin, laurier rose, zakhum, arali). The name used in English seems to be derived from its tendency to exude an oil (oleo) from its trunk.
The flowers have a fringed corolla and appear at the ends of the branches in clusters. There are many different color varieties within the species, and these have been exploited to produce over 400 cultivars. The shrub is frequently planted as an ornamental, in part because of its flowers, and also because deer will not eat it (the toxins affect many species other than humans).
In A.D. 77 Pliny the Elder claimed that oleander extract mixed with wine was an effective snakebite cure. In the 1960s Turkish doctor, Huseyin Ziya Ozel, discovered that villagers in hill towns used an extract of oleander to treat wounds. He then developed a purported remedy for cancer using an extraction from the plant. This concoction, called Anvirzel, has been marketed in several countries outside the United States, but, because it is marketed as a drug rather than a supplement, it is subject to regulation by the FDA, and it is therefore unlikely to be marketed legally in this country any time soon.
Mainstream sources of information, including the International Oleander Society, tend to stress the toxicity of the plant, while alternative medicine and other New Age sources of information promulgate the curative properties of extracts from oleander. It is this ambiguity that makes Delmhorst’s song so enigmatic.
The imagery of the first stanza—“born a little soon, raised on too much moon”—has a mystical, New Age feel to it. The image of the “burning son” is also a trick because unless you see it written, you would not know whether she meant “sun” or “son”. You would therefore not not be sure whether the protoganist is male or female, or the nature of the implied relationship in the third stanza.
The transformation wrought by the gathering of oleander and “all the strippings of pride gone astray” is a life spent in the “dappled rays of his love like a fern in the shade,” which is not exactly a triumphant outcome. Is this vicarious life an improvement? Who is he? And what, indeed, “holds you”?
And because you do not know, you want to hear it again … and again—like an event in your own life that changed everything, and you are still not sure how. So you keep turning it over and over in your mind, wondering if, like oleander, it was a cure or a poison.