The Teeth Mother Naked at Last

by Robert Bly

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The Poem

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“The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is a long, frequently subjective, meditation on the American involvement in the Vietnam War. It describes the “harm” the war has done to America and to Americans “inwardly.” The poem is divided into seven numbered and self-contained sections ranging in length (in the final Selected Poems version) from eight to fifty-three lines. Each section is divided into stanzas of uneven lengths. Several sections are further divided into subsections, separated by asterisks, and section 3 contains two paragraphs of prose. One part of section 2 was originally published independently, in quite different form, in The Nation (March 25, 1968), and another part of this section originally appeared in Robert Bly’s play, The Satisfaction of Vietnam (1968).

The title refers to one of the “mothers” that make up the mystical cult of the Great Mother, which first appeared in ancient times. The Teeth or Stone Mother attempts to destroy consciousness and spiritual growth and has come to stand for the destruction of the psyche in Jungian psychology.

The poem begins with airplanes and helicopters (“death-bees”) lifting off from the decks of ships and flying over Vietnamese villages to bomb the people huddled in the “vegetable-walled” huts. This massive destruction, without mercy even for innocent children, is seen as the end result of what has happened in the American political system. The voices of soldiers are heard ordering the killing of “anything moving,” and the reed huts of the Vietnamese villagers are set afire. The war, with its wanton death and destruction, is defended and even rationalized by political and religious leaders and political and religious institutions back home in America. These rationalizations are “lies,” however, and these lies “mean that the country wants to die.” Things have already gone so far that even objective truths (such as the name of the capital of Wyoming, the number of acres of land in the Everglades, and the time the sun sets on any given day) now can be lied about by the president and the attorney general. This kind of corruption of the facts, in addition to the travesties and literal horrors of the war, are detailed primarily in the first three sections of the poem. “This,” readers are told, “is what it’s like for a rich country to make war.”

The transitional fourth and fifth sections suggest a literal, structural, and thematic turn in the poem. The fifth and shortest section begins with the most pertinent question of the whole poem: “Why are they dying?” Since, as has been seen and shown, there is no rational reason given, nor any answer available, the remaining sections of the poem move beyond the rational, into the mystical or metaphysical realms, in an attempt to deal with the atrocities inherent in war psychologically. In this sense, although the clear focus of the poem remains fixed on the Vietnam War, the poem expands this focus to a treatment of the psychological accoutrements of war in general.

The sixth section of the poem, which describes the burning of innocent children, is the most graphic and the most condemnatory. The speaker finds himself suddenly forced backward through the evolutionary chain, to the consciousness of his “animal brain,” which allows for a more emotional and less intellectual way of dealing with existence. Such a place in the psyche is also the place where poetry has its source and, thus, this movement down into the depths of the psyche prepares the reader for the poetic paean of the last two sections of the poem.

At the beginning of the seventh section the speaker says that...

(This entire section contains 658 words.)

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he wants to sleep without being awakened. In his apocalyptic dream vision, from “waters” deep beneath the surface of self and consciousness, “the Teeth Mother, naked at last,” rises up and points to the possibility of both a political and a psychic renewal, one which may vitiate the problems posed both by the war in Vietnam and by war in general.

Forms and Devices

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If “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is thought of as political satire, it may also be seen to combine elements of several of the traditional kinds of satire. It is a formal satire in that it makes a direct frontal attack on its adversary, naming names. At the same time, Bly combines elements of the two traditional varieties of satire: the Horatian (through his use of informal diction and the long Whitmanesque line) and the Juvenalian (through the gravity and seriousness of the threat posed and the hoped for serious and positive reaction solicited). Further, using another traditional satiric device, Bly approaches his theme indirectly via the third-person point of view—although, significantly (after slipping in and out of the first and third persons) the point of view shifts dramatically to the first person in the short, climactic fifth section, and it keeps to that point of view throughout the rest of the poem. This shift in the point of view, from the third person to the first, forces the theme and meaning of the poem to the immediate moment and puts it in terms that make it definitively personal.

One of the most conspicuous poetic devices in the poem is Bly’s vivid, often surprising and startling (if sometimes arbitrary or gratuitous) use of imagery and metaphor. Bly is known for his interest in, and his often obsessional use of, “deep images”—that is, images that combine or fuse disparate or unlikely elements and often attempt to connect the physical world with the psychic or spiritual world. Such images are clearly in evidence throughout this poem and they come to climax at the very end of it in such lines as “Let us drive cars/ up/ the light beams/ of the stars.”

Another conspicuous device (which Bly here appropriates for the first time in his work) is the long line, which he discovered in the poetry of Walt Whitman. This long line, and the form his poem takes are, according to Bly himself, most appropriate for “public” and “political” poetry because, as he says in his essay “Whitman’s Line as a Public Form,” “The subject of political poetry is power, andI felt drawn to a line that handles powerdirectly.”

Finally, in a poem of this length, what is perhaps most important is rhythm. As “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” moves smoothly through its themes and through the nightmares of the landscape of war, there are logical and imaginative “leaps” in the lines, as well as seemingly irrational associations. These “leaps” are intended to suggest and parallel similar leaps and irrational shiftings in the political and social fabric of a society attempting to justify its involvement in war. Such imaginative “bullets” are Bly’s own “bombing raid” on warmongers.

Bibliography

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Altieri, Charles F. “Varieties of Immanentist Experience: Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara.” In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Davis, William Virgil. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.

Harris, Victoria. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, eds. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Malkoff, Karl. Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Robert Bly Web site. www.Robertbly.com.

Smith, Thomas R. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. New York: Perennial, 1991.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

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