At the Bomb Testing Site

by William Stafford
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530

Lines 1-2: These lines introduce the subject of the poem: a desert lizard. With just a few words, these lines convey great heat (the sun is highest in the sky at noon), great solitude (the desert is thought of as a desolate place in which creatures and plants must struggle for survival) and great urgency (the lizard is “panting” and “tense,” implying exertion or a fight-or-flight reaction). From the poem’s title, we know that the lizard lives in an area upon which a bomb is about to be dropped. Use of the word “elbows” instead of “legs” attributes human qualities to the lizard, inviting the reader to identify with this creature, and implying that the lizard’s fate might be ours as well.

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This tiny lizard in the midst of the vast desert is made to seem yet smaller by the use of the abstract word “history.” Given the context, “history” can refer to the lizard’s individual life in the desert, which is about to come to a close; human history, including the development of technology and weapons such as the atom bomb in the title; and collective human history, how mankind is destroying itself and its environment. This sort of multiple meaning recurs in many lines in this short poem, which makes the most of each word.

Lines 3-4: Here we learn that the lizard is tense because “something might happen,” which we already know involves history. The word “road” implies mankind’s presence and intervention in this desert landscape, as the only roads in the desert are manmade. The lizard literally looks at the road, but, in a larger sense, is also watching what humanity is doing. If “something” happens, it will be brought about by man. The “particular road” can also be interpreted figuratively as the course of events of the lizard’s life, which is about to be brought to an end by the actions of people. The word “curve” reinforces that what is about to happen can’t be seen yet; it’s just around the corner.

The quiet, casual, ordinary language of these lines—especially using the nondescript word “something” to refer to the enormity and violence of a bomb explosion—create a tension that strengthens the poem’s emotional effect.

Lines 5-8: This stanza attributes to the lizard an ability to perceive truths that human beings, in their myopic and self-important quest for power, cannot grasp. These lines express the paradox that the closer one is to the ground (i.e. to nature), the farther one can see. Line 4’s “something might happen,” which refers to the explosion, is now expanded to “something farther off,” the larger consequences of nuclear weapons in particular and of war in general. The use of the word “selves” personifies the lizard (and other animals that are implied), giving it a consciousness. The word “little” is ironic, as this tiny creature has greater prescience and compassion than beings two hundred times its size, who are in reality the small-minded ones. “Little” also implies humble, in contrast to human greed. So the lizard, one of the “little selves” connected to the earth as part of nature, can see the backdrop of natural history, which existed before man imposed his own history by building cities and roads, dividing up the land into political territories, and fighting to defend them.

The “important scene” that these humble creatures witness is the slow, inevitable unfolding of natural history. This history is acted or performed by the stone of the earth itself, billions of years old. The creatures also watch the supposedly important (i.e. to humans) scene of the atomic age and the cold war, the human drama that may end up extinguishing all life on the planet. They know the plain truth that we destroy ourselves physically and spiritually by ignoring the essential unity of all things, and by mistreating our environment and each other.

We often hear the expressions “carved in stone” or “set in stone,” which imply permanence, but Stafford chooses the word “acted” instead to convey the idea of history as a play or film. Human history is only an act put on for a short while— made even shorter by our destructive impulses. This idea echoes the well-known passage from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act 2, Scene 7) that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages,” as well as his depiction in Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5) of life as a brief play: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.”

The last line of this stanza is a striking combination of the abstract and concrete, comparing the narrow opening of a wine glass or flower (as in “fluted”) or the end of a slender musical instrument (a flute) with the end result of momentous actions. The line works in an impressionistic way: “flute” is a light and delicate word, as set against the weight of “consequences.” Little selves like the lizard may seem to be unimportant and far away, at the narrow end of the spectrum, but are really a part of the big picture, and when changes are brought about in or by nature, they are affected too. They are harmed when the environment is harmed. Small creatures don’t possess the power (or will) to destroy their own environment, but they do have the ability to perceive when the end is at hand.

Lines 9-10: This sentence reinforces the statement in the previous stanza that a fundamental lack of harmony exists between man and nature. To many humans, nature is “not much.” And to the natural world, in the larger sense humans are “not much” either. Although stated in the same simple declarative manner as the rest of the poem, these lines take a more extreme stance, reducing North America to “just a continent” of no interest to the sky. Saying that the sky does not care is an example of the poetic technique of pathetic fallacy, or attributing human traits or feelings to inanimate nature. The use of this technique enlarges a particular feeling (“The person who will detonate the bomb doesn’t care about the lizard”), making it seem universal (“The sky doesn’t care about any of us”). It also suggests that the sky and the earth have their own existence apart from human ambition and folly.

Humans who would explode a bomb just as a test, killing many lizards and other forms of life, clearly do not respect the environment from which they gain their very sustenance. And it seems that humans also think little of destroying the hundreds of thousands of human lives in the crowded cities upon which bombs will be dropped. Yet here there is also an intimation that works against the poem’s pessimistic message: the sky may never care, but people—including the author of the poem—do at least have that capacity, whether they use it or not.

Lines 11-12: The poem returns to the lizard, further describing its preparation for the blast. The repetition of the words “elbows” and “waited” from line 2 bring us back to the beginning of the poem, creating a sort of cycle. But here, the lizard that was an “it” in lines 2 and 5 is now referred to only in terms of its body parts: “the elbows,” “the hands.” This use of the undefined article “the” depersonalizes the lizard, making it a wider symbol of the natural world. Because these lines do not specify who or what these elbows and hands belong to, they also suggest that the hands and elbows might be numerous— that many creatures are facing annihilation— and that they could belong to humans as well (since lizards have feet, not hands). A third, figurative, sense of the poem’s last line is that mankind has the desert in its grip, and one can imagine the huge hands of the bomb tearing up the sand and soil. This careful word choice again prompts the reader to identify with the lizard, and to experience the horror of the impending explosion. Using the words “a change” to describe a violent death continues the poem’s understated style.

The last line changes the tone of the poem with its emphatic one-syllable words and its repetition of consonant sounds—“h” and “d” in “hands,” “gripped,” “hard,” and “desert.” These harsh, clipped sounds reinforce that something unimaginably violent and devastating is about to occur.

The lizard is not resting or lying on the desert surface, allowing itself to be blown into the air but braces itself by “gripping” the earth. This little life meets its own death head-on, with total awareness of what is about to happen. Though the lizard is apparently “ready,” the poem fully conveys the terror and fear of facing an unnatural death, implying that no form of violence is acceptable—not toward the soil, not toward animals, and not toward humans.

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