Learning

Robert Bly

The Teeth Mother Naked at Last Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck.Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets. Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over the hutswith dirt floors.The chickens feel the new fear deep in the pits of their beaks.Buddha with Padma Sambhava. Meanwhile, out on … Continued

A native of Minnesota, Bly was born of Norwegian descendents in 1926. He spent two years in the Navy and matriculated to Harvard after spending a year of study at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. While at Harvard Bly connected with a group of students, all who were to become famous writers: Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Harold Brodky, George Plimpton, and John Hawkes. He participated at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop in 1954-55 and in 1956 traveled to Norway on a Fulbright grant to translate Norwegian poetry in English. While in Norway he was struck with the important force that a number of international writers had on Europeans. It was at this point that he decided to begin a literary magazine for poetry translation in the United States. The publications entitled The Fifties and The Sixties, and The Seventies, introduced many international poets to an American audience. In 1966, Bly co-founded American Writers Against the Vietnam War. When he won the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body, he contributed the prize money to the anti-war movement. Bly’s work includes the publication of books of poetry, essays, and translations.
The poem that follows, “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” was published by City Lights in 1970 and later included in Sleepers Joining Hands. In the poem, Bly’s anguish and grief over the Vietnam War is felt.

The Teeth Mother Naked at Last

                                           I

Massive engines lift beautifully from the deck.
Wings appear over the trees, wings with eight hundred rivets.

Engines burning a thousand gallons of gasoline a minute sweep over the huts
with dirt floors.
The chickens feel the new fear deep in the pits of their beaks.
Buddha with Padma Sambhava.

Meanwhile, out on the China Sea,
immense gray bodies are floating,
born in Roanoke,
the ocean on both sides expanding, “buoyed on the dense marine.”

Helicopters flutter overhead. The death-
bee is coming. Super Sabres
like knots of neurotic energy sweep
around and return.
This is Hamilton?s triumph.
This is the advantage of a centralized bank.
B-52s come from Guam. All the teachers
die in flames. The hopes of Tolstoy fall asleep in the ant heap.
Do not ask for mercy.

Now the time comes to look into the past-tunnels,
the hours given and taken in school,
the scuffles in coatrooms,
foam leaps from his nostrils,
now we come to the scum you take from the mouths of the dead,
now we sit beside the dying, and hold their hands, there is hardly time for good-bye,
the staff sergeant from North Carolina is dying? you hold his hand,
he knows the mansions of the dead are empty,
he has an empty place inside him,
created one night when his parents came home drunk.
He uses half his skin to cover it,
as you try to protect a balloon from sharp objects. . . .

Artillery shells explode. Napalm canisters roll end over end.
Eight hundred steel pellets fly through the vegetable walls.
The six-hour old infant puts his fists instinctively to his eyes to keep out the light.
But the room explodes,
the children explode.
Blood leaps on the vegetable walls.

Yes, I know, blood leaps on the walls…
Don’t cry at that.
Do you cry at the wind pouring out of Canada?
Do you cry at the reeds shaken at the edge of the marsh?
The Marine battalion enters.
This happens when the seasons change,
This happens when the leaves begin to drop from the trees too early
“Kill them: I don’t want to see anything moving.”
This happens when the ice begins to show its teeth in the ponds
This happens when the heavy layers of lake water press down on the fish’s head,
and send him deeper, where his tail swirls slowly, and his brain passes him
pictures of heavy reeds, of vegetation fallen on vegetation. . . .
Now the Marine knives sweep around like sharp-edged jets;
they slash open the rice bags, the reed walls the mattresses
Marines kill ducks with three-hundred-dollar shotguns
and lift cigarette lighters to light the thatched roofs of huts.
They watch the old women warily

                                            II

Excellent Roman knives slip along the ribs.
A stronger man starts to jerk up the strips of flesh.
“Let’s hear it again, you believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?”
A long scream unrolls.
More.
“From the political point of view, democratic institutions are being built in Viet Nam, wouldn’t you agree?”

A green parrot shudders under the fingernails.
Blood jumps in the pocket.
The scream lashes like a tail.

“Let us not be de-terred from our task by the voices of dis-sent. . . .”
The whines of the jets
pierce like a long needle,

As soon as the President finishes his press conference, black wings carry off the words,
bits of flesh still clinging to them.

                                           * * *

The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies, the priests lie.
What are these lies?
They mean that the country wants to die.
Lie after lie starts out into the prairie grass,
like enormous caravans of Conestoga wagons crossing the Platte.

And a long desire for death goes with them, guiding it all from beneath:
“a death longing if al longing else be vain,”
stringing together the vague and foolish words.

It is a desire to eat death,
to gobble it down,
to rush on it like a cobra with mouth open.
It’s a desire to take death inside,
to feel it burning inside, pushing out velvety hairs,
like a clothes brush in the intestines?

This is the thrill that leads the President on to lie.

                                           * * *

Now the Chief Executive enters, and the press conference begins.
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian Mountains rose.
Then he lies about the population of Chicago,
then the weight of the adult eagle, and then the acreage of the Everglades
Next he lies about the number of fish taken every year in the Arctic.

He has private information about which city is the capital of Wyoming.
He lies about the birthplace of Attila the Hun,
Then about the composition of the amniotic fluid,

He insists that Luther was never a German,
and that only the Protestants sold indulgences,
He declares that Pope Leo X wanted to reform the church, but the
liberal elements prevented him.
He declares the Peasants? War was fomented by Italians from the North.
And the Attorney General lies about the time the sun sets.

                                           * * *

These lies mean that something in the nation wants to die.
What is there now to hold us to earth? We long to go.
It is the longing for someone to come and take us by the
hand to where they all are sleeping:
where the Egyptian pharaohs are asleep, and our own mothers,
and all those disappeared children, who went around with us
on the rings at grade school. . . .

Do not be angry at the President?
he is longing to take in his hand the locks of death hair:
to meet his own children, dead, or never born. . . .
He is drifting sideways toward the dusty places

                                             III

This is what it’s like for a rich country to make war
this is what it’s like to bomb huts (afterwards described as “structures”)
this is what it’s like to kill marginal farmers (afterwards described as Communists”)
this is what its like to watch the altimeter needle going mad:

Baron 25, this is 81. Are there any friendlies in the area?
81 from 25, negative on the friendlies. I’d like you to
take out as many structures as possible located in those
trees within 200 meters east and west of my smoke mark.

diving, the green earth swinging, cheeks hanging back,
red pins blossoming ahead of us, 20-millimeter cannon
fire, leveling off, rice fields shooting by like telephone
poles, smoke rising, hut roofs loom up huge as landing
fields, slugs going in, half the huts on fire, small figures
running, palm trees burning, shooting past, up again
. . . blue sky . . . cloud mountains . . .

This is what it’s like to have a gross national product.
This is what it’s like to send firebombs down from air-conditioned cockpits.
This is what it’s like to be told to fire into a reed hut with an automatic weapon.
It’s because we have new packaging for smoked oysters
that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies

When St. Francis renounced his father’s goods,
when he threw his clothes on the court floor,
then the ability to kiss the poor leapt up from the floor to his lips.
We claim our father’s clothes, and pick up other people’s;
finally we have three or four layers of clothes.

Then all at once it is fated, we cannot help ourselves,
we fire into a reed hut with an automatic weapon.

It’s because the aluminum window-shade business is doing
so well in the United States
that we spread fire over entire villages.
It’s because the trains coming into New Jersey hit the right
switches every day.
That Vietnamese men are cut in two by bullets that
follow each other like freight trains.
It’s because the average hospital bed now costs two hundred
dollars a day
That we bomb hospitals in the north.

It is because we have so few women sobbing in back rooms,
because we have so few children’s heads torn apart by high-velocity bullets,
because we have so few tears falling on our own hands
that the Super Sabre turns and screams down toward the earth.

                                           IV

I see a car rolling toward a rock wall.
The treads in the face begin to crack.
We all feel like tires being run down roads under heavy cars.

The teen-ager imagines herself floating through the Seven Spheres.
Oven doors are found
open.
Soot collects over the doorframe, has children, takes courses,
goes mad, and dies.

There is a black silo inside our bodies, revolving fast.
Bits of black paint are flaking off,
where the motorcycles roar, around and around,
rising higher on the silo walls,
the bodies bent toward the horizon,
driven by angry women dressed in black.

                                       * * *

I know that books are tired of us.
I know they are chaining the Bible to chairs.
Books don’t want to remain in the same room with us anymore.
New Testaments are escaping . . . dressed as women . . .
they slip off after dark.
And Plato! Plato . . . Plato
wants to hurry back up the river of time,
so be can end as a blob of seaflesh rotting on an Australian beach.

                                           V

Why are they dying? I have written this so many times.
They are dying because the President has opened a Bible again.
They are dying because gold deposits have been found among
the Shoshoni Indians.
They are dying because money follows intellect,
And intellect is like a fan opening in the wind.

The Marines think that unless they die the rivers will not move.
They are dying so that the mountain shadows will continue to fall
east in the afternoon,
so that the beetle can move along the ground near the fallen twigs.

                                          VI

But if one of those children came near that we have set on fire,
came toward you like a gray barn, walking,
you would howl like a wind tunnel in a hurricane,
you would tear at your shirt with blue hands,
you would drive over your own child’s wagon trying to back up,
the pupils of your eyes would go wild.

If a child came by burning, you would dance on your lawn,
trying to leap into the air, digging into your cheeks,
you would ram your head against the wall of your bedroom
like a bull penned too long in his moody pen.

If one of those children came toward me with both hands
in the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go back to my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours, screaming,
my vocal chords would turn blue; so would yours,
it would be two days before I could play with one of my own
children again.

                                          VII

I want to sleep awhile in the rays of the sun slanting over the snow.
Don’t wake me.
Don’t tell me how much grief there is in the leaf with its natural oils.
Don’t tell me how many children have been born with stumpy hands
all those years we lived in St. Augustine’s shadow.

Tell me about the dust that falls from the yellow daffodil
shaken in the restless winds.
Tell me about the particles of Babylonian thought that
still pass through the earthworm every day.
Don’t tell me about “the frightening laborers who do not
read books.”

The mad beast covered with European hair rushes
towards the mesa bushes in Mendocino County
Pigs rush toward the cliff.

The waters underneath part: in one ocean luminous
globes float up (in them hairy and ecstatic men);
in the other, the Teeth Mother, naked at last.

Let us drive cars
up
the light beams
to the stars . . .

And return to earth crouched inside the drop of sweat
that falls from the chin of the Protestant tied in the fire.

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