‘At the Bomb Testing Site’ by William E. Stafford is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem does not conform to a standard pattern of rhyme, but the lines are similar in their length, ranging from eight to twelve syllables. Within this piece, Stafford alludes to, but never explicitly addresses the main subject, a bomb testing site. Without the title to add in that background information a complete reading of the poem is hard to arrive at.
The desert that features as the main setting of the poem is likely a reference to the Nevada Test Site where nuclear devices were first detonated above, and then underground. The fallout from these tests resulted in substantial increases in cancer throughout southern Utah. The United States eventually started detonating the bombs underground. There were a total of 928 tests continued in earnest from 1950-1980, with the site still being used today.
Summary of At the Bomb Testing Site
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is noon in the desert and a lizard is looking down the road, preparing for something to happen. One does not receive any additional information about what exactly does happen, aside from that within the title. The land is used to test nuclear weapons and the poem describes what the prelude to the detonation is like.
The lines are very tense, with the reader expecting an explosion at any time. Rather than describe this action, Stafford chose to focus on the reactions of those present at the creation o these weapons. The world was not prepared for the consequences of possessing and using nuclear weapons. There is a significant amount of implied ignorance around their importance. He concludes the poem with the speaker describing how the earth is bracing itself for the coming explosion.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of At the Bomb Testing Site
At noon in the desert a panting lizard(…)as if something might happen.
The speaker begins this piece by laying out the most important details of the setting. These, in tandem with the title of the poem, give the reader a basic idea of what is about to happen.
First, the speaker states that it is “noon” and that the scene he is observing is taking place in the “desert.” The speaker is a semi-omniscient narrator who is not physically present in the desert. He is able to see what is going on in the scene and interpret a few details of it. The only life that is active in this place is a “lizard” which is said to be “panting” in the heat. It is frozen in one spot, waiting, the speaker says, “for history” to happen. This is a very poignant line meant to pique a reader’s interest. Something will occur that is remembered for many years to come.
There is a road running through this section of the desert that the lizard is observing. It does not appear that there are any cars or people on this road. There is one “curve” of the road the lizard is looking at,
as if something might happen.
Stafford does not explain within the poem itself where the land is he is describing. A reader should refer to the title for that information and then to the introduction of this analysis for a full explanation of one possible interpretation. It is likely that the land is that of the Nevada Test Site in the United States where the US government first tested nuclear weapons, starting in the 1950s.
With this background information in mind, one comes to expect, with the same amount of trepidation as the lizard, what is to come.
It was looking at something farther off(…)at the flute end of consequences.
In the second quatrain, the speaker describes how the lizard was looking down the road and then further, into the distance. It is clear that the creature is far from the test site, but close enough to experience the impact of the bomb. One must consider that the title places the poem “At the bomb testing site,” not at a distance from it.
The speaker never uses the word “bomb” in this piece or alludes to the fact that weapon of mass destruction is about to be denoted anywhere but in the title. This lends the text a feeling of mystery and suspense. The reader feel tension while waiting for the inevitable. Stafford also creates distance between the lizard and any prospective human observers. It is able to see
[…] farther off
than people could see,
The animal is looking in a way that humans cannot. This is likely an allusion to the fact that human beings do not yet have a full understanding of their actions. This is emphasized by the following lines which describe the creators of the weapon as being on the “flute end of consequences.” Humans are “little.” At this point they are mentally far from the consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it(…)The hands gripped hard on the desert.
In the final quatrain the speaker describes the barren nature of the “continent.” This place, which (as stated above) resembles the deserts of Nevada, is without “much on it.” It is far from the densest parts of civilization and is therefore destined to be the proving ground for these weapons. The land has been exiled to a position,
under a sky that never cared less.
The events that are going to occur here happened without a proper understanding of their greater impact. The poem concludes with the speaker stating that the land, and the single outside witness to the coming events, is “Ready for a change.” The earth is primed to make a large and dangerous step towards self-destruction. In the last line, the Stafford personifies the land itself. It is waiting, on its “elbows,” as if either bracing itself or preparing to move. Its hands are “gripp[ing]” the desert floor, an action that speaks both to fear and strength in the face of danger.