September 2021: Kaveh Akbar’s “Rimrock” & Foo Fighters’ “Shame Shame”

This month I want to look at a poem from Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017). It’s his first collection of poems and I find it to be an interesting book in the ways that the poet explores his relationship to addiction (alcoholism in particular) and spirituality. He does an excellent job writing in the narrative and lyric form and his work is image heavy in the best ways. Although the book is focused on a singular perspective, the collection itself is expansive and encompasses a wide range of emotions with meditative precision.

“Rimrock” appears in the second section of the book titled “Hunger” and this poem fits under that theme well because of how it navigates the speaker’s desire to understand his darker impulses as they relate to the darker impulses of nature. Here are the first couplets:

Without the benefit of fantasy
I can’t promise I’ll be of any use.

Left to the real world I tend
to swell up like roots in the rain,

tend to get all lost in hymns
and astrology charts. Lately

I’ve been steaming away, thin
as cigarette paper, cleaning up

the squirrels that keep dying in my yard.
Each cascade of fur feels like a little tuft

of my own death. Am I being dramatic?

The speaker immediately sets up a distinction between “fantasy” and “the real world.” Although he inhabits both worlds, it is clear that he needs the imaginative realm in order to function in the material realm. Here, readers are given an interesting combination of images: “roots in the rain,” “hymns,” “astrology charts,” cigarette paper,” and “squirrels that keep dying in my yard.” What is even more compelling about the poem is that he addresses the reader directly with the line “Am I being dramatic?” after seeing his own death mirrored in the fur of the dead squirrels. This is a wonderful rhetorical move because it functions as a grounding mechanism for the speaker who finds himself too deeply immersed in his dream world. Here are the next few couplets:

Mostly I want to be letters—not

their sounds, but their shapes
on a page. It must be exhilarating

to be a symbol for everything at once:
the bone caught in a child’s windpipe,

the venom hiding in a snake’s jaw.
I used to be so afraid of nature.

This poem is meditative in the ways that it meanders through the speaker’s thoughts, but it gets much more intense once it lands on his fascination with annihilation. Here, the poem shifts quite quickly, from dead squirrels to language to the speaker’s desire to inhabit cosmic consciousness: “It must be exhilarating / to be a symbol for everything at once.” The images selected to represent this type of consciousness ventures into darker territory: “the bone caught in a child’s windpipe” and “the venom hiding in a snake’s jaw.” The statement, “I used to be so afraid of nature” punctuates the speaker’s understanding that he is no longer sensitive to the brutality of nature itself, the way it contains the power to destroy. The speaker proclaims: “Peering up at a rush of rimrock / I imagined how unashamed it would be / to crush even me…” and again, there is this blurring of fantasy and reality that emphasizes the speaker’s insignificance in the face of nature’s ability to annihilate without shame. And yet the speaker maintains his innocence: “Still, / I don’t know the rules. If I go looking / for grace and find it, what will grace / yield?” In this sense, grace serves as a spiritual concept, as a way for the speaker to safeguard himself against a universal force that he can’t control. Grace is relief from the threat of annihilation. What the speaker eventually realizes is that he only really has control over one thing: himself—“Oh, but I do / know what I am: moonstruck, stiff / as wet bamboo.” He is nature itself.

The poem ends on a profound realization, which again places this poem in the realm of meditative poetry in the way that it seeks enlightenment through mindfulness and personal experience. And this is what makes Akbar’s poetry so special: his ability to transform his personal struggles into wisdom. The last two couplets capture this desire to not only understand nature, but to coexist with it, to surrender to it:

As long as the earth continues
its stony breathing, I will breathe.

When it stops, I will shatter back
into gravity. Into quartz.

The song I want to discuss this month is the Foo Fighters’ “Shame Shame” from the group’s tenth album Medicine at Midnight which came out in February of this year. I first heard the Foo Fighters as a teenager listening to the radio. I remember hearing “Everlong” when it first came out and loving it and it’s a song I still cherish very much. The Foo Fighters is a solid rock band; the group has consistently put out good, high-quality music for twenty plus years, which is a difficult thing to do in the contemporary rock world. What sets the Foo Fighters apart from other rock bands is Dave Grohl’s strong vocal presence and the group’s ability to maintain a distinctive sound that centers on lyrical and rhythmic flexibility. In other words, the group knows how to be creative and experimental without venturing too far away from the band’s core identity: lyrical-based rock music.

“Shame Shame” stands out to me as a unique song for the band because of the ways it incorporates a rhythmic percussive groove. The Foo Fighters are known for big guitars and strong percussion, but here, the song places heavy emphasis on Grohl’s vocals accompanied by a powerful rhythmic groove. The song itself starts with the groove before Grohl begins to sing as a way to establish a mood that is mellow and slightly erotic. Here is the first verse:

If you want to
I’ll make you feel something real just to bother you
Now I got you
Under my thumb like a drug, I will smother you

I’ll be the one, be the moon, be the sun
Be the rain in your song, go and put that record on
If you want to
I’ll be the one, be the tongue that will swallow you

This verse gets its power from the way in which Grohl sings it. His singing matches the tone of the song in ways that highlight a specific aspect of his vocal personality: gentleness laced with a bittersweet tone that is erotically potent. The shorter lines: “If you want to / Now I got you” are sung slowly, word by word, and the longer lines are sung in a faster rhythm. This serves as an interesting counter-rhythm to the musical one which adds lovely tension to the song. After the first verse, Grohl sings a highly provocative refrain: the word “shame” repeated eight times. The word is drawn out each time and highlights the sweetness of Grohl’s voice so that the word itself becomes beautifully melodic. The song picks up at the chorus with a string section that adds emotional depth along with Grohl’s classically dark melodic voice:

Another splinter under the skin
Another season of loneliness
I found a reason and buried it
Beneath a mountain of emptiness

The lyrical power of this song stems from the mystery around the shame that the speaker feels. The source of it is never described, but instead, the feeling that comes from experiencing shame is expressed, which makes the song poetically intriguing. Here is the second verse:

Who, what, when, where
Just move along, nothing wrong till we meet again
I’ll be the end
I’ll be the war at your door, come and let me in

I’ll be the one, be the moon, be the sun
Be the rain in your song, go and put that record on
If you want to
I’ll be the one, be the tongue that will swallow you

At its core “Shame Shame” is a love song; it addresses a beloved in poignant ways and employs nature images that have romantic connotations: “moon,” “sun,” and “rain.” The phrases used in both verses are teasingly provocative: “I’ll make you feel something real just to bother you,” “Be the rain in your song, go put that record on,” “I’ll be the war at your door, come and let me in.” Because this song is sexual in nature—from the lyrical content to the musical elements—shame takes on a different meaning. The song itself is not about shame, although the word is threaded throughout the song and ends on the refrain that repeats the word several times. The song is about desire; it pulls at the lyrical core of the song and as a result, it pulls at the listener’s core. In this sense, shame is transformed into something much more profound: it’s an expression of erotic tension that is both intense and beautiful.

When thinking about Akbar’s poem and the Foo Fighters song, I feel that what links them is their vocal power. Akbar’s singular perspective in his poetry is the primary strength of the work. He writes from personal experience, from his unique perspective and his voice reflects his desire to understand himself and the world around him. The Foo Fighters’ principal strength is Dave Grohl’s vocal presence not just because the songs are written and expressed from his singular perspective, but because so much of what he expresses lyrically is deeply felt by him. Akbar’s poems and the Foo Fighter’s music are charged with emotion in ways that highlight masculinity as both gentle and passionate. Each one inhabits a tone of dark sweetness that is endearing, poignant, and beautiful.

September 6, 2021