Published separately in 1970, then later incorporated into Sleepers Joining Hands (1973), The Teeth Mother Naked at Last has been described as one of the best antiwar poems written in the twentieth century. Bly’s strategy in the composition of the poem was to undermine somehow the sterility of the language the United States used—both in its nightly news broadcasts and on its political lecterns—when discussing the Vietnam War and the issues surrounding it. He did this by revealing these familiar phrases and familiar political statements to be false.
After a series of descriptive images from the war in Indochina, descriptions which move from the striking—almost beautiful—to the increasingly bloody and grotesque, Bly tells his reader, “Don’t cry at that.” Would one cry at other natural phenomena, he asks, such as storms from Canada or the changing of the seasons? The language used publicly to discuss the war was similar to the language reserved for inevitable, natural things. Bly forces the reader to admit that fact by exposing the harsher reality of war.
The language Bly uses was drawn from many sources: the phrases of the military (“I don’t want to see anything moving. . . . [T]ake out as many structures as possible”); the standard phrases of columnists and television commentators; and the rhetoric of politicians, especially President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Texas drawl Bly mimics by using hyphens. Then Bly, almost in a rage, warns...
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