I have to say that this poem mystifies me. The vocabulary, literally, is not challenging. But you’ll only get so far here with literal meaning — which is a great lesson for those of you learning English. In poems, the literal meaning (which is often the main struggle when you’re learning a language) only tells us so much. In poems, we have to feel the image, the sound. We have to move beyond the words and rely on what we feel and experience.
This is just one reading of the poem! I still don’t really know “what it means” — so as always, I want to model for you ways to work through a poem and swim around in it for awhile, come out with some feeling about it. Trust your own responses as you read mine.
Before you move on, read the poem a couple of times, out loud if possible.
First Stanza: A Scene
The first line gives us the main image of the poem:
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
What’s the setting? Noon in the desert. Why is noon important? Well, it’s the hottest time of day and in the desert, the hottest climate.
Who is our character?: A panting lizard. Panting? He’s hot! And we know from the title “At the bomb testing site,” where people are building or testing bombs, this scene is focused on a tiny lizard. Right away, what does that say to you, that this story is focused on the lizard?
Ok, the rest of the stanza expands on the scene:
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.
What is happening with this lizard? What is it doing?
Waiting. That’s really the main image or action here — waiting. For what? History. That’s a big word, a big concept. He’s not waiting for food or waiting for a specific thing — but history. What does that statement do? What does it make you think? Write down some ideas now, and we’ll come back to it.
What other details do you see about this character or scene?
“Its elbows tense.” What does tense tell us? The lizard is waiting not calmly but anxiously. It almost feels something scary or big (like history) is going to happen.
The lizard is “watching the curve of a particular road / as if something might happen”: So this phrase gives me an image I’ve probably experienced in my life — staring down a road waiting. Something or someone may be coming, but we don’t know when. There’s an expectant feeling, but also there’s uncertainty.
And, remember the title. We know that what’s coming could be big, destructive. Watching this lizard, we’re waiting for a literal bomb to drop. And how big and catastrophic that would be to this little piece of life … Remember the question about why we’re focused on a lizard? There’s something important here about paying attention to this little life in the midst of big destruction, in the span of history.
Second Stanza: Beyond the Scene
The second stanza gets a little more “figurative.” Literally, the lizard is “looking at something farther off.” So our gaze goes beyond this zoomed-in image of the lizard.
Farther off than what? “than people could see.” So the lizard has a larger view than what people (we) can see. There’s a “bigger picture.”
What is that bigger picture? Well, here the poem gets a little mysterious in its literal description, so we have to really sink in and feel what it’s saying.
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.
So, we know this scene is “important.” It’s “acted in stone.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but how does this phrase feel? If it’s “acted in stone,” to me it feels stuck, heavy, solidified, not acted live like a play. Stone is also old material of the Earth. Geologic time, the time of stone, is long — so much longer than human existence.
That leads me to the rest of that phrase “acted in stone for little selves.” The lizard is a little self, but so are humans, in the huge history of the Earth. I feel that huge-ness echoed in the very big, uncertain event the lizard is waiting for — this huge explosion. We’re that small, too, like this lizard, waiting, powerless.
And these little selves wait “at the flute end of consequences.” This is a tough phrase to interpret literally. Again, I’m not sure what this means, but what does it feel like?
We know it’s about consequences, so that makes me think of the bomb and its consequences — or war and its consequences, or the consequences of human action.
Flute-end. It feels small, like the little selves. A flute is a musical instrument, so light as sound coming out of the end, the consequence of sound produced? A flute-end (I looked it up!) is also the end of a tool, used in milling. So it could be where the end of that tool meets the stone, makes contact, drills in, does the damage. Either way, the image I get, or what I feel, is that there’s a narrowing to the moment of impact, contact, of something happening. There’s still that small-self feeling in the span of Earth time.
Third Stanza: What Do We Make of This Scene?
In this last stanza, our “view” gets even bigger, zooms out:
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
What are the only nouns, objects here?
continent. sky. So we’ve moved from this small lizard to the level of a big continent, a big sky.
And how are they described? “without much on it” “never cared less.” I get the feeling of this vast land, vast sky, the view of the Earth like the time of the Earth. It’s indifferent — to our little human action. It’s neutral. It has a larger perspective.
And now we narrow back to the lizard:
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
Actually, the lizard is only referred to as “the elbows,” “the hands.” Do lizards have elbows and hands? Kind of … but it’s definitely a view of the lizard as human-like. And we only see the lizard by the part of it that’s gripping (not its eyes or head or tail), the part that’s waiting anxiously. I can feel its contact with the hot ground, gripping “hard,” the tension. We’re still left with this feeling of anticipation, dread, instinct, uncertainty. We’re left “ready for change.” This hasn’t been resolved by the end of the poem. Is that change the destruction of the bomb dropping? Does the “change” imply change toward peace, a society’s decision not to cause such destruction with sophisticated weapons? This is the tension we feel — What will be the decision?
I think this is a good question to ask of literature, rather than “What does it mean?” or “What’s the message?”
This poem is great example of things being so much more complicated than, “Here’s the message.” We can’t make sense of it easily — and that’s the beauty of poetry which addresses issues. We end indifferently, like the continent and sky. This is a sort of “protest” poem, but there’s no outright “protest” or “opinion” or “message,” or “soundbite,” not like propaganda or advertising or even an opinion piece.
(Good) poetry does this: it paints a scene, shows us images and things we might not otherwise notice or think about. Instead of detailing the statistics and history and impacts of bomb testing or war, it focuses in on an image that wouldn’t be seen otherwise: Here, a tense lizard.
So we can ask: What do we make of this point of view? What do we make of the images here — the anxious lizard, the curve in the road, the scene in stone, the indifferent continent and sky? The waiting, the anxiety, the tension?
For me, this poem is an experience. Through that lizard and its little elbows gripping the ground, hot and panting, I feel the tension and the threat of destruction of this huge bomb, the huge consequences of that kind of human action (which is also indifferent to the little lizard life it destroys). I feel the great span of history and the little selves of humans, our little selves like this tense lizard, ultimately just as powerless in the span of the Earth, ultimately destroyed by the consequences of our own actions.
This poem’s structure — starting small and zooming out — makes me think of valuing the smallest bits of life and how that little life feels, and of the Earth’s oldest stone. It’s an acknowledgement of life’s value and also its fleetingness in history; the consequences of indifferent human destruction and also the peaceful and loving indifference of the sky and land. Zooming out to that wider view also gives me the sense that whatever our small human actions are, even something as destructive as bombing, maybe in the grand scheme of time won’t matter. The little selves that destroy things won’t prevail. Through it all, I feel that tension, waiting, dread of what will happen, of this bomb’s horrible power — and also a bit of the relief of the sky, the continent. Unlike reading news about bomb testing or bombing or war in a textbook, through this poem I feel a bit of experience.
What do you experience in this poem?
Thanks for reading! I hope this was helpful.
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