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Analysis of Poem 'At the Bomb Testing Site' by William Stafford

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Stafford

William Stafford

William Stafford and a Summary of At the Bomb Testing Site

At the Bomb Testing Site is an unusual political poem because it doesn't mention anything connected to war or the politics that creates war weaponry. The only giveaway is in the title.

What it does is give an alternative angle on this controversial topic through the eyes of a lizard. This cold-blooded creature is described as having hands and elbows, so it is anthropomorphized, becoming in one sense part metaphor for the human species.

The speaker is always at a distance, observing the actions of the lizard as noon is reached and history about to be made. Will the bomb go off soon? Or is there a delay? The lizard's instincts are kicking in; something will happen, but when?

  • This is such a detached narrative; there is no personal involvement in the three free-verse stanzas, which cover different aspects of the lizard's physicality—panting, looking, and gripping.

There is an indirect challenge here for all humans. A bomb is about to go off in the desert; a lizard might get annihilated; the environment might become contaminated. Powerful weapons of war are being tested in readiness for battle; consequently, they might well be used to destroy buildings and people.

Stafford hasn't gone for the loud, obvious protest poem. He's set the scene by giving the lead role to a relatively small, silent animal as it sits somewhat tense in a huge expanse of desert, its only home.

  • This rather suspenseful approach leans towards fable—the poem could be part of a story—but without the moral. There is no beginning, middle and end, or conclusion or climax. The speaker leaves that up to the reader, who is encouraged to carry on thinking and asking questions long after reading this poem.
  • There is no moral judgement, all the reader is given is the certainty of change under the indifferent sky.

First published in the book West of Your City, 1960, but written in the 1950s, this poem is now celebrated as a Stafford classic. It conveys more by revealing less; it is pregnant with possibility and suggestion. It's naturally ambiguous.

Yet it somehow subtly captures the essence of that puzzling phenomenon, human intelligence, and indirectly throws light on the only species consciously capable of building such weaponry ensuring mutually assured destruction.

Being a pacifist, Stafford was against war, refused to fight in the second world war, and feared for the future of the planet because of nuclear proliferation. This poem is said to be based on some of the first testings of an atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico around 1945.

'At the Bomb Testing Site' by William Stafford

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Analysis of 'At the Bomb Testing Site'

'At the Bomb Testing Site' is certainly a political poem, given the poet's moral stance and history of protest. Yet in the three simple quatrains there is no loud shouting or put down or protest, no anti-war phrases, not one political statement.

There is the title, plain enough, setting the scene in the desert where the bomb, an atomic bomb, is about to be tested. The reader knows within a couple of lines that this is an important day—history will be made—but there is no fanfare, no controversy, no polemical discourse.

First Stanza

All the reader has to focus on is a lizard. A lowly reptile. And this lizard is panting which means it is either very hot (unlikely being a cold blooded creature) or showing signs of stress. The word tense is evidence of the latter.

The use of elbows endows the lizard with a human joint, which is anthropomorphism, where the lizard becomes the eyes and mind of the human. It is watching but can't quite see what's coming round that far off curve in the road. The desert road? It's not made clear but it's certainly a road of destiny.

Second Stanza

As it sits there stressed out there is an inevitability about this whole scene...instinct takes over...the event is something humans cannot understand, cannot grasp. Humans may be the intelligent species on earth, intelligent when it comes to things like developing technology and stuff, and working things out and being creative . . . but . . . when it comes to things like having to live together without the need for war and destruction, perhaps humans aren't all that intelligent?

  • The scene which the lizard can intuit is an act, in stone, by planet earth. Is the reptile summing up the history of rock, how the earth formed and out of its birth life began and with it the process of evolution? This humble creature, and all creatures, find themselves at the flute end—the thin end, the narrow end—of all that happens in nature.
  • But they are also a part of the whole and this is perhaps what humankind cannot yet grasp. By testing bombs humans are being blind to the fact that this is also an act of destruction, the consequences of which in time will be coming down the road, looking for payback.

Note the contrast between in stone (heavy, weighty) and flute end (light, fragile).

Third Stanza

The third stanza reinforces the idea that humans do not consider nature when they test bombs, and most certainly have no care for things like animals when waging war on each other.

But note the idea that the continent, of North America, hasn't much on it, implying that the whole land mass is bereft of natural things. And the sky is given a human trait—it doesn't care what happens to nature, symbolised by the waiting lizard.

This is a somewhat pessimistic picture being drawn, on a grand scale. The humans are the only species capable of such extremes - they can show such compassion and such zest for life—yet they can readily accept mutually assured destruction (MAD) on a scale never before seen.

And yet here is the lizard gripping hard on the sands (of time), anticipating . . . its own death? Note the repeat of elbows and hands, taking the reader back to the opening lines and the idea that lizard and human are one. Both are vulnerable.

More Analysis

'At the Bomb Testing Site' is a free verse 12-line poem made up of 3 stanzas, quatrains. It has no rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line.


The speaker in this poem is certainly detached from personal involvement, giving a remote feel, a third person narrative taking the reader into this desert scene, with a lone lizard and the curve of a road.

There is a hesitancy about the poem, as if the speaker is perched somewhere high above or behind the lizard watching with a pair of binoculars perhaps. Both lizard and speaker are nervy, sensing that something profound is about to happen.


Three formal looking quatrains, the first two complete sentences, the third made up of three sentences, produce a snapshot of detailed visuals at noon, the hour of greatest heat.


When a line ends and carries on in meaning without punctuation, so the reader flows into the next line, not pausing, for example:

lines 1, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9.


Look out for consonants close together which bring texture and added interest of sound for the reader:

stone for little selves/hands gripped hard.


Where vowels come close together:

elbows tense/if something/see . . . scene/end . . . consequences/just . . much/never . . . less/


  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • Hudson, Marc. “The Prodigal Poet.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 106, no. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 97–102.
  • Poetry Foundation
  • 'On Political Poetry and William Stafford's "At the Bomb Testing Site"' « Kenyon Review Blog

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