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 that all such language conceals the truth. He catalogs those who lie, from the ministers to the reporters to the professors to the president, equating their willingness to lie with a kind of societal death wish. Bly sees in Americans’ capacity to kill, and to kill in such a sterile, casual way, a profound psychic rift, a demonstration of their own spiritual inadequacy.
The myth embodied in the title of the poem is also the myth by which Bly understood that spiritual poverty. The myth of the Great Mother, first discussed at length by Jung, and later by several prominent anthropologists including Claude Levi-Strauss, reveals the Western attempt to disavow the more feminine aspect of the psyche and embrace the masculine, that is, logical, instead.
In an essay titled “I Came Out of the Mother Naked,” which appears as a section of Sleepers Joining Hands—the section immediately after The Teeth Mother Naked at Last—Bly argues that the Great Mother, the embodiment of feminine consciousness in mythology, actually has four manifestations, which he lists as the Good Mother, the Death Mother, the Ecstatic Mother, and the Teeth Mother. He validates these aspects by taking examples from archaeology, mythology, and primitive poetry. The Good Mother is the image of the hearth, the one most familiar to the West; the Death Mother Bly describes as the mother figure responsible for evil and for evil witch and hag images; the Ecstatic Mother Bly equates with the muse of Greek literature, the feminine part of the consciousness that grants creativity; and the Teeth Mother, her opposite, is the aspect that destroys the spirit and forces people into a catatonic state, depriving them of the joy of life.
This aspect of the feminine had perhaps the most importance for Bly, because he saw in her image the spiritual bankruptcy of the American psyche—to him, the war in Vietnam revealed that, as a people, Americans had chosen the Teeth Mother over the Ecstatic Mother; they had chosen to destroy rather than create. Bly’s poem The Teeth Mother Naked at Last is perhaps the most remarkable antiwar poem of the Vietnam War era, precisely because it argues against the war on this most psychological, most fundamental level.