The Teeth Mother Naked at Last

by Robert Bly

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Themes and Meanings

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The main theme of “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is the age-old theme of the terror and the horror wrought by war. This poem reminds one of other powerful antiwar poems, both about the Vietnam War and other, earlier, wars. Now that war involves the prospect of and, indeed, the inevitability of, mass destruction—including the innocent as well as the “guilty”—the issues have become more demanding, just as the terrors have become more terrifying. There is, then, a greater pressure to protest. Bly’s poem leads the way.

“The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is a poem that demands a response and a reaction. In form and theme, in its large and small design, it forces the reader toward making a response, toward a reaction, and toward taking action.

Like many of Bly’s shorter antiwar poems in The Light Around the Body (1967), “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is didactic, propagandistic, and controversial, both in terms of its theme and its “meaning” or significance. It is a political, social, even psychological analysis of the malaise of modern society, which came to a climax in the Vietnam War—a war here seen and described as the latest, the most immediate, and the most terrifying example of man’s inhumanity to man. In forcing these issues on the reader, Bly is attempting to awaken readers from the sleeplike state in which they have existed and continue to exist, to awaken them to what they are doing to themselves as well as to others by allowing such things as the Vietnam War to occur, and to motivate them toward taking positive action (life-giving instead of life-taking) to see that such wars never happen again.

In order for this to happen, however, men and women must be able to understand themselves to the depths of their beings; they must be able to acknowledge the Teeth Mother, “naked at last,” and they must be able to deal with her in appropriate political and psychological ways. This is what the final lines of Bly’s poem imply. Humans must, yes, move outward into space and explore the outer reaches of the universe, but even more important, they must simultaneously travel through the depths of their own inner psychic “spaces” and make, if necessary, even a martyr’s sacrifice for what they find there, for what they must most believe in.

Here, then, is the shock of recognition and realization, the full and final realization of the significance and the power of the “Teeth Mother” who has hidden away in Western culture and in everyone’s own individual psychic selves for so long, buried so deeply that only something like the Vietnam War could force her, “naked at last,” back into view, demanding to be seen and heard. “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” is Robert Bly’s most important poetic response to the demands forced out into the world by the Teeth Mother.

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