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On "At the Bomb Testing Site"


Leonard Nathan

The poem never alludes directly to its subject except in the title. The awful potential is seen through the anticipatory behavior of the lizard, and described with understated detachment. Direct treatment of such subjects tends to be shrilly trite, hysterically accusing, and sometimes merely self-pitying, as though, in search of terms congruent with the magnitude of the unspeakable, writers pass beyond the limits of what they can control by art and intelligence. I think it was the philosopher Adorno who, after World War II, proclaimed: "No poems about concentration camps!" Although I'm put off by his peremptory tone and his implication that there are subjects too serious for the self-indulgence of poets, I think I understand what prompted such an utterance. In a time when so much poetry contains, as a sort of authenticating credential, the personality of the poet, the treatment of really tremendous topics deserves something better than pathetic personal stance, more or less grandiose. . . .

And this, I think, is why a poem like Stafford's seems memorable. It is able to shift its subjectivity to another creature - a creature noted for its cold blood - and offer instinctual anticipation as a kind of measure for the unspeakable.

. . . .

For all the dozens of antinuclear poems I have read and forgotten, Stafford's sticks in my mind (along with Karl Shapiro's wonderful "The Progress of Faust") not just as a clever handling of a difficult topic, but as some measure for the magnitude of the danger, a magnitude I can handle at least with some sense that I can act on it, in however limited a way, and can act, so far as it is in my power to, rationally. Direct poems on the topic usually leave me with one of two feelings, if they don't put me off altogether: either I feel helpless before what they prophesy or I feel like rushing out and doing something fast; since there is nothing useful like that to do, this latter feeling itself leads to a sense of futility and finally indifference. I begin to think of something else, something less paralyzing, and leave it to dreams to remind me of the unspeakable.

. . . .

When I show those who are not poetry readers the Stafford poem, show it and try to explain how it works, they usually become thoughtful. I want them to be thoughtful, not to knock me down and run for the nearest exit. I think that's the best we can hope for - that a lot of people become thoughtful. Let them be scared too (and perhaps direct poems can have some effect here), but let them be thinking hard. That seems to me the first step toward serious argument and useful action. And I don't know what else or what better we can hope for out of all this.

From New England Review and Breadloaf Quarterly 5 (1983).


Charles Simic

A political poem in which not a single political statement is made, what Stafford himself calls more "nonapparently political than apparently political."

. . . .

In poetry a choice is made about the part that will represent the whole. Form, in its deepest sense, is selection. True form is the product of an extraordinary vision.
    There's a lizard at the bomb testing site. The poem is an attempt to measure everything according to the duration and intensity of that little life.

A "weasel-worded" poem.
    The naked world. The innocent lizard. A most primitive form of life. Ugly. Expendable - like those laboratory animals stuck inside a maze under the bright lights.
    One assumes they're afraid too.

"How pure and great must be the cause for which so much blood is spilled," says Aleksandar Wat.

For now, just the timeless moment. Just the lizard, the desert. He's panting, trembling a little. Think of Elizabeth Bishop's "Armadillo," the fire raining on him. . . . That will come later.
    History is marching. . . . Or, History is a throw of the dice . . .

The poem is an attempt to convey certain old premonitions. The first lizard knew the world will end some day.
    And at the heart of it - Incomprehension! Bewilderment!

Out there, perhaps scratched in stone, there's the matchstick figure of the Indian humpbacked flute player. He is surrounded by other matchstick figures. They are enacting a scene, a sacred dance . . .

The sphinx is watching. An American sphinx waiting for history. The hands grip hard, so we are on the very verge. It is the instant in which all past and all future wait suspended.

One should speak of Stafford's disappearing acts. As in "Traveling Through the Dark," he leaves us at the most crucial moments. At the end of his great poems we are always alone, their fateful acts and their consequences now our own to consider.
    Solitude as an absolute, the only one.

The heavens above couldn't care less. The poet asks the philosopher in us to consider the world in its baffling presence.

An American sphinx in the desert of our spirit. Let us keep asking her questions.

In the meantime, we can say with Heidegger that poems such as this one open the largest view of the earth, sky, mortals and their true and false gods.

from Field (1989).


Albert E. Stone

William Stafford's 12-line lyric of 1960, "At the Bomb Testing Site," is justly admired for its masterful economy and figurative suggestiveness in using animal imagery. Even more so than he does in "Indian Caves in the Dry Country, " the poet turns a small spot of the American desert into a symbolic nuclear stage. His central figure is a desert lizard whose agon is so carefully constituted that a generation of readers and critics, like Leonard Nathan, remember and can quote the poem in toto. . . .

As Nathan (himself an activist poet) has noted, Stafford's "poem never alludes directly to its subject except in the title." The "important scene / acted in stone for little selves / at the flute end of consequences," indeed, seems obscure, inasmuch as "stone" is seldom associated with Los Alamos or the Bomb, except as a highly generalized image of rubble devastation. Nathan believes he knows why Stafford plays such an indirect game between title, voice, and content. "In a time when so much poetry contains, as a sort of authenticating credential, the personality of the poet, the treatment of really tremendous topics deserves something better than pathetic personal stance, more or less grandiose." In reaction, Stafford bends over backward to avoid such a voice and stance, "and this, I think, is why a poem like Stafford's seems memorable," Nathan concludes. "It is able to shift its subjectivity to another creature--a creature noted for its cold blood--and offer instinctual anticipation as a kind of measure for the unspeakable." Such indirection, he adds, is good politics. "I do not doubt ... that effective poems can be written on the unspeakable. They may seem modest, perhaps innocuous, because they work through indirection, not startling us to mindless action like a siren charging through our sleep, but subtly shifting the way we see the reality, keeping our imaginations alive to possibilities."

From Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Twayne Publishers.


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