I first used the phrase "Tooth Mother" in the gap between leaving Vermont and beginning law school in 1990 and 91. It showed up in some very disjointed poems that despite their abundance basically went nowhere. I wrote a lot at work in those days, filling up scraps of paper. It was strange to be living in Massachusetts again. And sad to think I only briefly made it back to Vermont, despite my vow to live and die there forever.
I think "Tooth Mother" goes back to Bly, who I read carefully in the year before leaving Vermont. There was a phase of his writing - prior to Iron John - where he was very into the dark mother stuff, which I think was his attempt to honor women. They can be violent and crazy too! I seem to recall it in both essays and poems. Sleepers Joining Hands maybe? I don't remember and the boys are practicing in the loft so I can't go back to check.
That characterization may not be fair to Bly. It maybe oversimplifies. But Bly is frustrating that way. He was - like me in many ways - a puer, alighting in this or that domain and deciding that because he's glimpsed it, he's an expert and can start talking about it. But you can err in the other direction, too - get so lost studying and ascending ladders of merit that you forget to share what you're learning. What do I know.
I use "Tooth Mother" now for two explicit reasons. First, because it is an alternative to "witch," which evokes some horror movie energy I don't want and also has religious connotations for friends whose sensitivity I want to respect.
But second, also, "Tooth Mother" syncs up with a clear focus on being eaten (and eating, I guess), which I have mulled for decades and which in recent months has leaped to the front of the image line. Use me! Use me!
And I don't especially want to use it. I don't want to "go there," as the kids say.
What happens in the writing when you allow a word or image that feels a little troubling? When its provenance is a little less than ideal? Yet which insist on its place in the work?
Well, you use it, yes? You use it and see what happens next. As the Tooth Mother would herself.
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