At the Bomb Testing Site

Albert E. Stone: "At the Bomb Testing Site"

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."